|Item 1. Identity of Directors, Senior Management and Advisers|
|Item 2. Offer Statistics and Expected Timetable|
|Item 3. Key Information|
|Item 4. Information on The Company|
|Item 4.A. Unresolved Staff Comments|
|Item 5. Operating and Financial Review and Prospects|
|Item 6. Directors, Senior Management and Employees|
|Item 7. Major Shareholders and Related Party Transactions|
|Item 8. Financial Information|
|Item 9. The Offer and Listing|
|Item 10. Additional Information|
|Item 11. Quantitative and Qualitative Disclosures About Market Risk|
|Item 12. Description of Securities Other Than Equity Securities|
|Item 13. Defaults, Dividend Arrearages and Delinquencies|
|Item 14. Material Modifications To The Rights of Security Holders and Use of Proceeds|
|Item 15. Controls and Procedures|
|Item 16.A. Audit Committee Financial Expert|
|Item 16.B. Code of Ethics|
|Item 16.C. Principal Accountant Fees and Services|
|Item 16.D. Exemptions From The Listing Standards for Audit Committees|
|Item 16.E. Purchases of Equity Securities By The Issuer and Affiliated Purchasers|
|Item 16.F. Change in Registrant's Certifying Accountant|
|Item 16.G. Corporate Governance|
|Item 16.H. Mine Safety Disclosure|
|Item 17. Financial Statements|
|Item 18. Financial Statements|
|Item 19. Exhibits|
|Balance Sheet||Income Statement||Cash Flow|
SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION
WASHINGTON, D.C. 20549
For the fiscal year ended
Date of event requiring this shell company report . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
For the transition period from to
Commission file number:
(Exact name of Registrant as specified in its charter)
(Translation of Registrant’s name into English)
(Jurisdiction of incorporation or organization)
(Address of principal executive offices)
(Name, Telephone, E-mail and/or Facsimile number and Address of Company Contact Person)
Securities registered or to be registered pursuant to Section 12(b) of the Act:
Title of each class
Name of each exchange on which registered
representing fifteen Class A ordinary shares,
par value US$0.0001 per share
par value US$0.0001 per share*
Not for trading, but only in connection with the listing on the New York Stock Exchange of American depositary shares, each representing fifteen Class A ordinary shares.
Securities registered or to be registered pursuant to Section 12(g) of the Act:
(Title of Class)
Securities for which there is a reporting obligation pursuant to Section 15(d) of the Act:
(Title of Class)
Indicate the number of outstanding shares of each of the issuer’s classes of capital or common stock as of the close of the period covered by the annual report. As of December 31, 2020, there were
Indicate by check mark if the registrant is a well-known seasoned issuer, as defined in Rule 405 of the Securities Act.
☐ Yes ☒
If this report is an annual or transition report, indicate by check mark if the registrant is not required to file reports pursuant to Section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.
☐ Yes ☒
Note – Checking the box above will not relieve any registrant required to file reports pursuant to Section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 from their obligations under those Sections.
Indicate by check mark whether the registrant: (1) has filed all reports required to be filed by Section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 during the preceding 12 months (or for such shorter period that the registrant was required to file such reports), and (2) has been subject to such filing requirements for the past 90 days.
Indicate by check mark whether the registrant has submitted electronically every Interactive Data File required to be submitted pursuant to Rule 405 of Regulation S-T (§232.405 of this chapter) during the preceding 12 months (or for such shorter period that the registrant was required to submit such files).
Indicate by check mark whether the registrant is a large accelerated filer, an accelerated filer, a non-accelerated filer, or an emerging growth company. See definition of “accelerated filer and large accelerated filer” and “emerging growth company” in Rule 12b-2 of the Exchange Act. (Check one):
Large accelerated filer ☐
Non-accelerated filer ☐
Emerging growth company
If an emerging growth company that prepares its financial statements in accordance with U.S. GAAP, indicate by check mark if the registrant has elected not to use the extended transition period for complying with any new or revised financial accounting standards† provided pursuant to Section 13(a) of the Exchange Act.
† The term “new or revised financial accounting standard” refers to any update issued by the Financial Accounting Standards Board to its Accounting Standards Codification after April 5, 2012.
Indicate by check mark whether the registrant has filed a report on and attestation to its management's assessment of the effectiveness of its internal control over financial reporting under Section 404(b) of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (15 U.S.C. 7262(b)) by the registered public accounting firm that prepared or issued its audit report.
☐ Yes ☒ No
Indicate by check mark which basis of accounting the registrant has used to prepare the financial statements included in this filing:
International Financial Reporting Standards as issued
If “other” has been checked in response to the previous question, indicate by check mark which financial statement item the registrant has elected to follow.
☐ Item 17 ☐ Item 18
If this is an annual report, indicate by check mark whether the registrant is a shell company (as defined in Rule 12b-2 of the Exchange Act).
(APPLICABLE ONLY TO ISSUERS INVOLVED IN BANKRUPTCY PROCEEDINGS DURING THE PAST FIVE YEARS)
Indicate by check mark whether the registrant has filed all documents and reports required to be filed by Sections 12, 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 subsequent to the distribution of securities under a plan confirmed by a court.
☐ Yes ☐No
TABLE OF CONTENTS
In this annual report, except where the context otherwise requires and for purposes of this annual report only:
|●||a lesson is considered “booked” when it is taken or when the student to such lesson is confirmed absent;|
|●||an “active student” for a specified period refers to a student who booked at least one paid lesson, excluding those students who only attended paid live broadcasting lessons or trial lessons;|
|●||“ADSs” refers to our American depositary shares, each representing 15 Class A ordinary shares;|
|●||“China” or “PRC” refers to the People’s Republic of China, excluding, for the purpose of this annual report only, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau;|
|●||“gross billings” for a specific period refers to the total amount of cash received for the sale of course packages and services in such period, net of the total amount of refunds in such period;|
|●||“ordinary shares” refers to our Class A and Class B ordinary shares, par value US$0.0001 per share;|
|●||“our PRC consolidated VIEs” refers to Dasheng Zhixing, Dasheng Helloworld and Dasheng Zhiyun;|
|●||“our WFOEs” refers to Dasheng Online and Helloworld Online;|
|●||a “paying student” for a specified period refers to a student that purchased a course package during the period, excluding those students who only paid for live broadcasting lessons, and the total number of “paying students” for a specified period refers to the total number of paying students for such period minus the total number of students that obtained refunds during such period;|
|●||“RMB” or “Renminbi” refers to the legal currency of China;|
|●||“US$,” “dollars” or “U.S. dollars” refers to the legal currency of the United States;|
|●||“we,” “us,” “our company,” “our,” and “COE” refer to China Online Education Group, a Cayman Islands company, and its subsidiaries, and, in the context of describing our operations and consolidated financial information, also include its consolidated variable interest entities;|
|●||“foreign teachers” refers to the non-Chinese teachers; and|
|●||“global teachers” refers to the non-Filipino foreign teachers.|
Unless otherwise noted, all translations from Renminbi to U.S. dollars and from U.S. dollars to Renminbi in this annual report were made at a rate of RMB6.5250 to US$1.00, the exchange rate in effect as of December 31, 2020 set forth in the H.10 statistical release of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. We make no representation that any Renminbi or U.S. dollar amounts could have been, or could be, converted into U.S. dollars or Renminbi, as the case may be, at any particular rate, or at all.
This annual report on Form 20-F contains forward-looking statements that involve risks and uncertainties. All statements other than statements of historical facts are forward-looking statements. This annual report contains forward-looking statements that reflect our current expectations and views of future events. The forward-looking statements are contained principally in the sections entitled “Item 3. Key Information—D. Risk Factors,” “Item 4. Information on the Company—B. Business Overview” and “Item 5. Operating and Financial Review and Prospects.” These forward-looking statements are made under the “safe-harbor” provisions of the U.S. Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. Known and unknown risks, uncertainties and other factors, including those listed under “Item 3. Key Information—D. Risk Factors,” may cause our actual results, performance or achievements to be materially different from those expressed or implied by the forward-looking statements. These statements involve known and unknown risks, uncertainties and other factors that may cause our actual results, performance or achievements to be materially different from those expressed or implied by the forward-looking statements.
You can identify these forward-looking statements by words or phrases such as “may,” “will,” “expect,” “anticipate,” “aim,” “estimate,” “intend,” “plan,” “believe,” “likely to” or other similar expressions. We have based these forward-looking statements largely on our current expectations and projections about future events and financial trends that we believe may affect our financial condition, results of operations, business strategy and financial needs. These forward-looking statements include, but are not limited to, statements about:
|●||our goals and growth strategies;|
|●||our expectations regarding demand for and market acceptance of our brand and platform;|
|●||our ability to retain and increase our student enrollment;|
|●||our ability to offer new courses;|
|●||our ability to engage, train and retain new teachers;|
|●||our future business development, results of operations and financial condition;|
|●||our ability to maintain and improve infrastructure necessary to operate our education platform;|
|●||competition in the online education industry in China;|
|●||the expected growth of, and trends in, the markets for our course offerings in China;|
|●||relevant government policies and regulations relating to our corporate structure, business and industry;|
|●||general economic and business condition in China, the Philippines and elsewhere; and|
|●||assumptions underlying or related to any of the foregoing.|
These forward-looking statements involve various risks and uncertainties. Although we believe that our expectations expressed in these forward-looking statements are reasonable, our expectations may later be found to be incorrect. Our actual results could be materially different from our expectations. Other sections of this annual report include additional factors that could adversely impact our business and financial performance. Moreover, we operate in an evolving environment. New risk factors and uncertainties emerge from time to time and it is not possible for our management to predict all risk factors and uncertainties, nor can we assess the impact of all factors on our business or the extent to which any factor, or combination of factors, may cause actual results to differ materially from those contained in any forward-looking statements. You should read thoroughly this annual report and the documents that we refer to with the understanding that our actual future results may be materially different from, or worse than, what we expect. We qualify all of our forward-looking statements by these cautionary statements.
This annual report contains certain data and information that we obtained from various government and private publications. Statistical data in these publications also include projections based on a number of assumptions. The online education industry may not grow at the rate projected by market data, or at all. The failure of the market to grow at the projected rate may have a material adverse effect on our business and the market price of our ADSs. In addition, the rapidly changing nature of the online education industry results in significant uncertainties for any projections or estimates relating to the growth prospects or future condition of our market. Furthermore, if one or more of the assumptions underlying the market data are later found to be incorrect, actual results may differ from the projections based on these assumptions. You should not place undue reliance on these forward-looking statements.
The forward-looking statements made in this annual report relate only to events or information as of the date on which the statements are made in this annual report. Except as required by law, we undertake no obligation to update or revise publicly any forward-looking statements, whether as a result of new information, future events or otherwise, after the date on which the statements are made or to reflect the occurrence of unanticipated events. You should read this annual report and the documents that we refer to in this annual report and exhibits to this annual report completely and with the understanding that our actual future results may be materially different from what we expect.
ITEM 1. IDENTITY OF DIRECTORS, SENIOR MANAGEMENT AND ADVISERS
ITEM 2. OFFER STATISTICS AND EXPECTED TIMETABLE
ITEM 3. KEY INFORMATION
A. Selected Financial Data
Selected Consolidated Financial Data
The following selected consolidated statements of operation data (other than ADS data) and cash flow data for the years ended December 31, 2018, 2019 and 2020 and the selected consolidated balance sheet data as of December 31, 2019 and 2020 have been derived from our audited consolidated financial statements included in this annual report beginning on page F-1. The following selected consolidated statements of comprehensive loss data (other than ADS data) for the years ended December 31, 2016 and 2017 and the selected consolidated balance sheet data as of December 31, 2016, 2017 and 2018 has been derived from our consolidated financial statements which are not included in this annual report. Our historical results for any period are not necessarily indicative of results to be expected for any future period. The selected consolidated financial data should be read in conjunction with, and are qualified in their entirety by reference to, our audited consolidated financial statements and related notes and “Item 5. Operating and Financial Review and Prospects” below. Our audited consolidated financial statements are prepared and presented in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles in the United States, or U.S. GAAP.
For the Year Ended December 31,
(in thousands, except for share, per share and per ADS data)
Selected Consolidated Statements of Comprehensive Income/(Loss):
Cost of revenues
Sales and marketing expenses
Product development expenses
General and administrative expenses
Total operating expenses
Income/(loss) from operations
Interest expense and other expenses, net
Income/(loss) before income tax expenses
Income tax benefits/(expenses)
Accretions to preferred shares redemption value
Deemed contribution from preferred shares
Net income/(loss) attributable to ordinary shareholders
Other comprehensive (loss)/income:
Foreign currency translation adjustments
Total comprehensive income/(loss)
Weighted average number of ordinary shares used in computing basic income/(loss) per share(2)
Weighted average number of ordinary shares used in computing diluted income/(loss) per share(2)
Net income/(loss) per share attributable to ordinary shareholders(3)
Net income/(loss) per ADS attributable to ordinary shareholders(4)
|(1)||Share-based compensation expenses were allocated in operating expenses as follows:|
For the Year Ended December 31
Sales and marketing expenses
Product development expenses
General and administrative expenses
|(2)||The weighted average number of ordinary shares represents the sum of the weighted average number of Class A and Class B ordinary shares. See Note 13 in our audited consolidated financial statements included in this annual report for additional information regarding the computation of the per share amounts and the weighted average numbers of Class A and Class B ordinary shares.|
|(3)||Our ordinary shares are comprised of Class A ordinary shares and Class B ordinary shares. Each holder of Class A ordinary shares is entitled to one vote per share and each holder of Class B ordinary shares is entitled to ten votes per share on all matters submitted to them for a vote. Class B ordinary shares are convertible at any time by the holder thereof into Class A ordinary shares on a one-for-one basis. As holders of Class A and Class B ordinary shares have the same dividend right and the same participation right in our undistributed earnings, the basic and diluted income (loss) per Class A ordinary share and Class B ordinary share are the same for all the periods presented during which there were two classes of ordinary shares.|
|(4)||Each ADS represents fifteen Class A ordinary shares.|
|(5)||All translations from Renminbi to U.S. dollars and from U.S. dollars to Renminbi in this annual report are made at the rate as of the end of the applicable period, that is, RMB6.5250 to US$1.00, the rate in effect as of December 31, 2020.|
The following table presents our selected consolidated balance sheet data as of the dates indicated.
As of December 31,
Selected Consolidated Balance Sheet Data:
Cash and cash equivalents
Advances from students
Accrued expenses and other current liabilities
Total shareholders’ deficit
Total liabilities and shareholders’ deficit
The following table presents our selected consolidated cash flow data for the years indicated.
For the Year Ended December 31
Selected Consolidated Cash Flow Data:
Net cash provided by operating activities
Net cash used in investing activities
Net cash provided by/ (used in) financing activities
Effect of exchange rate changes on cash and cash equivalents
Net increase/ (decrease) in cash and cash equivalents
Cash and cash equivalents at beginning of the period
Cash and cash equivalents at end of the period
B. Capitalization and Indebtedness
C. Reasons for the Offer and Use of Proceeds
D. Risk Factors
Risks Related to Our Business and Industry
If we are not able to continue to attract students to purchase our course packages or to increase the spending of our students on our platform, our business and prospects will be materially and adversely affected.
Our ability to continue to attract students to purchase our course packages and to increase their spending on our education platform are critical to the continued success and growth of our business. This in turn will depend on several factors, including our ability to effectively market our platform to a broader base of prospective students, continue to develop, adapt or enhance quality educational content and services to meet the evolving demands of our existing or prospective students and expand our geographic reach. We must also manage our growth while maintaining consistent and high teaching quality, and respond effectively to competitive pressures. If we are unable to continue to attract students to purchase our course packages or to increase the spending of our students on our platform, our gross billings and net revenues may decline, which may have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition and results of operations.
Our business depends on the market recognition of our brand, and if we are unable to maintain and enhance brand recognition, our business, financial conditions and results of operations may be materially and adversely affected.
We believe that the market recognition of our brand has significantly contributed to the success of our business and that maintaining and enhancing our brand recognition is critical to sustaining our competitive advantages. Our ability to maintain and enhance brand recognition and reputation depends primarily on the perceived effectiveness and quality of our curriculum and teachers, as well as the success of our branding efforts. In March 2018, we further refined our 51Talk brand to focus on K-12 one-on-one mass market program, while introducing our small class offering under the Hawo (哈沃) brand and our adult English courses under the WuYouYingYu (无忧英语) brand. In February 2019, we engaged Wang Junkai, a famous singer in China, as our new brand ambassador. Our branding efforts, however, may not be successful and we may incur significant branding costs. If we are unable to maintain and further enhance our brand recognition and reputation and promote awareness of our platform, we may not be able to maintain our current level of student fees or engage qualified teachers, and our results of operations may be materially and adversely affected. Furthermore, any negative publicity relating to our company, our courses, teachers and platform or our brand ambassador, regardless of its veracity could harm our brand image and in turn materially and adversely affect our business and results of operations.
If we are unable to conduct sales and marketing activities cost-effectively, our results of operations and financial condition may be materially and adversely affected.
We have incurred significant sales and marketing expenses. Our sales expenses include telemarketing sales and free trial lesson related expenses, and our marketing expenses include online and mobile marketing and branding expenses. In December 2015, we began outsourcing part of our marketing and sales functions to independent third-party suppliers who provide management and business outsourcing services. We had 5,184 sales and marketing staff (including 1,323 full-time employees and 3,861 outsourced personnel) as of December 31, 2020. We incurred RMB731.2 million, RMB792.6 million and RMB1,035.6 million (US$158.7 million) in sales and marketing expenses in 2018, 2019, and 2020, respectively.
Our sales activities may not be well received by students and may not result in the levels of sales that we anticipate and our trial lessons may not be attractive to our prospective students. Furthermore, we may not be able to achieve the operational efficiency necessary to increase the revenues per sales and marketing staff. We also may not be able to retain or recruit experienced sales staff, or to efficiently train junior sales staff. Further, marketing and branding approaches and tools in the online education market in China are evolving, especially for mobile platforms. This further requires us to enhance our marketing and branding approaches and experiment with new methods to keep pace with industry developments and student preferences. Failure to refine our existing marketing and branding approaches or to introduce new marketing and branding approaches in a cost-effective manner may reduce our market share, cause our revenues to decline and negatively impact our profitability.
We have incurred, and in the future may continue to incur, net losses.
We have incurred net losses of RMB416.7 million, RMB104.4 million in 2018 and 2019, and recorded net income of RMB147.0 million (US$22.5 million) in 2020 respectively. We had accumulated deficit of RMB2,094.5 million, RMB2,198.9 million, and RMB2,051.9 million (US$314.5 million) as of December 31, 2018, 2019, and 2020, respectively.
While we recognized net income for 2020, we cannot assure you that we will be able to generate net profits or positive cash flow from operating activities in the future. Our ability to achieve profitability will depend in large part on our ability to increase our operating margin, either by growing our revenues at a rate faster than our operating expenses increase, or by reducing our operating expenses, especially our sales and market expenses, as a percentage of our net revenues. Accordingly, we intend to continue to invest in our branding and marketing activities to attract new students, improve our online and mobile platforms and data analytics capabilities to enhance student experience. As a result of the foregoing, we believe that we may continue to incur net losses in the future.
We face significant competition, and if we fail to compete effectively, we may lose our market share or fail to gain additional market share, which would adversely impact our business and financial conditions and operating results.
The English education market in China is fragmented, rapidly evolving and highly competitive. We face competition in general English proficiency education, as well as in K-12, test preparation and other specialized areas of English education, from existing online and offline education companies. In the future, we may also face competition from new entrants into the English education market.
Some of our competitors may be able to devote more resources than we can to the development and promotion of their education programs and respond more quickly than we can to changes in student demands, market trends or new technologies. In addition, some of our competitors may be able to respond more quickly to changes in student preferences or engage in price-cutting strategies. We cannot assure you that we will be able to compete successfully against current or future competitors. If we are unable to maintain our competitive position or otherwise respond to competitive pressure effectively, we may lose market share or be forced to reduce our fees for course packages, either of which would adversely impact our results of operations and financial condition.
If we are not able to continue to engage, train or retain qualified teachers, we may not be able to maintain consistent teaching quality on our platform, and our business, financial conditions and operating results may be materially and adversely affected.
Our teachers are critical to the learning experience of our students and our reputation. We seek to engage highly qualified teachers with strong English and teaching skills. We must provide competitive pay and other benefits, such as flexibility in lesson scheduling to attract and retain them. We must also provide ongoing training to our teachers to ensure that they stay abreast of changes in course materials, student demands and other changes and trends necessary to teach effectively. Furthermore, as we continue to develop new course contents and lesson formats, we may need to engage additional teachers with appropriate skill sets or backgrounds to deliver instructions effectively. We cannot guarantee that we will be able to effectively and timely engage and train such teachers, or at all. Further, given other potential more attractive opportunities for our quality teachers, over time some of them may choose to leave our platform. We have not experienced major difficulties in engaging, training or retaining qualified teachers in the past, however, we may not always be able to engage, train and retain enough qualified teachers to keep pace with our growth while maintaining consistent education quality. We may also face significant competition in engaging qualified teachers from our competitors or from other opportunities that are perceived as more desirable. A shortage of qualified teachers, a decrease in the quality of our teachers’ performance, whether actual or perceived, or a significant increase in the cost to engage or retain qualified teachers would have a material adverse effect on our business and financial conditions and results of operations.
If we fail to successfully execute our growth strategies, our business and prospects may be materially and adversely affected.
Our growth strategies include further enhancing our brand image to grow our student base and increase student enrollments, increasing our market penetration amongst K-12 students, expanding our course offerings, enhancing our teaching methods, improving the learning experience of our students, and advancing our technology. We may not succeed in executing these growth strategies due to a number of factors, including the following:
|●||we may fail to further promote our platforms;|
|●||we may not be successful in effectively delivering or promoting our small class lessons and live broadcasting lessons;|
|●||we may fail to effectively promote our corporate packages;|
|●||we may not be able to engage, train and retain a sufficient number of qualified teachers and other key personnel;|
|●||we may not be able to continue to improve our personalized learning experience of our students or to enhance our existing courses or develop new courses, especially for K-12 students, that meet the changing demands for English learners;|
|●||we may fail to maintain the technology necessary to deliver a smooth learning experience to our students; and|
|●||we may not be able to identify suitable targets for acquisitions and partnership.|
If we fail to successfully execute our growth strategies, we may not be able to maintain our growth rate and our business and prospects may be materially and adversely affected as a result.
If we fail to develop and introduce new courses that meet our existing and prospective students’ expectations, or adopt new technologies important to our business, our competitive position and ability to generate revenues may be materially and adversely affected.
Historically, our core business centered on English education to adults with our Classic English course. We have since switched our focus to target K-12 students and expanded our course offerings to K-12 students to provide a broader range of situation-based English education targeting a wide range of student demographics. In addition to lessons with independently contracted Filipino teachers, we have also introduced lessons with independently contracted global teachers and Chinese teachers to provide our students a broader selection of teachers and course formats. We intend to continue developing new courses. The timing of the introduction of new courses is subject to risks and uncertainties. Unexpected technical, operational, logistical or other problems could delay or prevent the introduction of one or more new courses. Moreover, we cannot provide assurance that any of these courses or programs will match the quality or popularity of those developed by our competitors, achieve widespread market acceptance or contribute the desired level of income.
The effectiveness of our program depends on the success of our personalized learning approach to English education, which in turn is determined by the efficiency of our data analytics know-how. We might not be able to continue to efficiently monitor and analyze relevant data important for us to provide a personalized learning experience for our students, or to continue to drive our teaching training, curriculum development and other operational aspects of our platform.
Technology standards in internet and value-added telecommunications services and products in general, and in online education in particular, may change over time. If we fail to anticipate and adapt to technological changes, our market share and our business development could suffer, which in turn could have a material and adverse effect on our financial condition and results of operations. If we are unsuccessful in addressing any of the risks related to new courses, our reputation and business may be materially and adversely affected.
Unexpected network interruptions, security breaches or computer virus attacks and system failures could have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition and results of operations.
Our business depends on the performance and reliability of the internet infrastructure in China and the Philippines. In China, almost all access to the internet is maintained through state-controlled telecommunications operators. In many parts of China and the Philippines, the internet infrastructure is relatively underdeveloped, and internet connections are generally slower and less stable than in more developed countries. We cannot assure you that the internet infrastructure in China and the Philippines will remain sufficiently reliable for our needs or that either country will develop and make available more reliable internet access to our students and independently contracted teachers. Any failure to maintain the performance, reliability, security or availability of our network infrastructure may cause significant damage to our ability to attract and retain students and teachers. Major risks involving our network infrastructure include:
|●||breakdowns or system failures resulting in a prolonged shutdown of our servers;|
|●||disruption or failure in the national backbone networks in China or the Philippines, which would make it difficult for students and independently contracted teachers to access our online and mobile platforms or to engage in live lessons;|
|●||damage from natural disaster or other catastrophic event such as a typhoon, volcanic eruption, earthquake, flood, telecommunications failure, or other similar events in China or in the Philippines; and|
|●||any infection by or spread of computer viruses.|
Any network interruption or inadequacy that causes interruptions in the availability of our online and mobile platforms or deterioration in the quality of access to our online and mobile platforms could reduce student satisfaction and result in a reduction in the activity level of our students and the number of students purchasing our course packages. If sustained or repeated, these performance issues could reduce the attractiveness of our platform. Furthermore, increases in the volume of traffic on our online and mobile platforms could strain the capacity of our existing computer systems and bandwidth, which could lead to slower response times or system failures. The internet infrastructure in China and in the Philippines may not support the demands associated with continued growth in internet usage. This would cause a disruption or suspension in our lesson delivery, which could hurt our brand and reputation. We may need to incur additional costs to upgrade our technology infrastructure and computer systems in order to accommodate increased demand if we anticipate that our systems cannot handle higher volumes of traffic in the future.
All of our servers and routers, including backup servers, are currently hosted by third-party service providers in multiple cities in China. We do not maintain any backup servers outside of these cities. We also rely on major telecommunication companies to provide us with data communications capacity primarily through local telecommunications lines and internet data centers to host our servers. We may not have access to alternative services and we have no control over the costs of services. If the prices that we pay for telecommunications and internet services in China and the Philippines rise significantly, our gross profit and net income could be adversely affected. In addition, if internet access fees or other charges to internet users increase, our visitor traffic may decrease, which in turn may harm our revenues.
Higher labor costs, inflation and implementation of stricter labor laws in the PRC, the Philippines and North America may adversely affect our business, financial conditions and results of operations.
Labor costs in China have increased with China’s economic development, particularly in the large cities where our offices are based. Rising inflation in China is also putting pressure on wages and the average wage level for our employees has also increased in recent years. In addition, we are required by PRC laws and regulations to pay various statutory employee benefits, including pensions, housing funds, medical insurance, work-related injury insurance, unemployment insurance and maternity insurance to designated governmental agencies for the benefit of our employees. We expect that our labor costs, including wages and employee benefits, will continue to increase. Unless we are able to pass on these increased labor costs to our students by increasing prices for our courses or improving the utilization of our staff, our profitability and results of operations may be materially and adversely affected. Furthermore, the PRC government has promulgated new laws and regulations to enhance labor protection in recent years, such as the Labor Contract Law and the Social Insurance Law. As the interpretation and implementation of these new laws and regulations are still evolving, our employment practice may not at all times be deemed in compliance with the new laws and regulations. For instance, in December 2015, we began outsourcing part of our marketing and sales functions to independent third-party suppliers who provide management and business outsourcing services to us. There remains a degree of uncertainty as to whether this service outsourcing arrangement will be deemed a labor dispatch arrangement under current PRC laws and regulations. If the authorities take the view that this outsourcing arrangement constitutes labor dispatch and thus violates relevant labor laws, we may be ordered to terminate this outsource arrangement and may even be fined or have our business license revoked. If we are subject to penalties or incur significant liabilities in connection with labor disputes or investigation, our business and profitability may be adversely affected.
In addition, our future success depends, to a significant extent, on our ability to engage, train and retain qualified personnel in the Philippines, particularly experienced independently contracted teachers with expertise in English education. Our experienced mid-level managers in the Philippines are instrumental in implementing our business strategies, executing our business plans and supporting our business operations and growth. We benefit from lower labor costs in the Philippines, but the Philippines is subject to relatively high degrees of political and social instability. Disruptions resulting from this instability could decrease our efficiency and increase our costs. Any political or economic instability in the Philippines could result in our having to replace or reduce these labor sources, which may increase our labor costs and have an adverse impact on our results of operations.
In the third quarter of 2015, we began offering one-on-one lessons with independently contracted global teachers, which we define as the non-Filipino foreign teachers, to complement our pool of independently contracted Filipino teachers. We have expanded our pool of independently contracted North American teachers since we launched the American Academy program in the second quarter of 2016. We engage our independently contracted foreign teachers as independent contractors whose rights differ from those of employees. There are uncertainties in determining whether a service provider is an independent contractor or an employee. The level and extent of control exercised by the hiring entity, among other factors, would determine the employment status. Our labor costs will increase if we engage our independently contracted teachers in the Philippines or North America as full-time employees or if courts or relevant authorities in the Philippines or North America determine that our independently contracted teachers are deemed employees instead of independent contractors. In addition, we would need to apply for employment permit with the competent authorities in China if our independently contracted Filipino or North American teachers are deemed employees located in China.
We also rely on some third-party vendors in Hong Kong to handle the payment of the compensation of our foreign teachers. Any failure of this vendor to provide these services may negatively impact our relationships with teachers in the Philippines, damage our reputation and cause us to lose teachers while making it difficult to find replacement teachers.
Some students may decide not to continue taking our courses for a number of reasons, including a perceived lack of improvement in their English proficiency or general dissatisfaction with our programs, which may adversely affect our business, financial condition, results of operations and reputation.
The success of our business depends in large part on our ability to retain our students by delivering a satisfactory learning experience and improving their English proficiency. If students feel that we are not providing them the experience they are seeking, they may choose not to renew their existing packages. For example, our education programs may fail to significantly improve a student’s English proficiency. There are no standard assessments or tests to measure the effectiveness of our lessons or teaching methods, and our ability to improve the English proficiency of our students is largely dependent upon the interests, efforts and time commitment of each student. Student satisfaction and, especially for K-12 students, parent satisfaction with our programs may decline for a number of reasons, many of which may not reflect the effectiveness of our lessons and teaching methods. A student’s learning experience may also suffer if his or her relationship with our teachers does not meet expectations. If a significant number of students fail to significantly improve their English proficiency after taking our lessons or if their learning experiences with us are unsatisfactory, they may not purchase additional lessons from us or refer other students to us and our business, financial condition, results of operations and reputation would be adversely affected.
Our failure to protect our intellectual property rights may undermine our competitive position, and litigation to protect our intellectual property rights or defend against third party allegations of infringement may be costly and ineffective.
We believe that our copyrights, trademarks and other intellectual property are essential to our success. We depend to a large extent on our ability to develop and maintain the intellectual property rights relating to our technology and course materials. We have devoted considerable time and energy to the development and improvement of our websites, mobile apps, our Air Class platform and our course materials.
We rely primarily on copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets and other contractual restrictions for the protection of the intellectual property used in our business. Nevertheless, these provide only limited protection and the actions we take to protect our intellectual property rights may not be adequate. Our trade secrets may become known or be independently discovered by our competitors. Third parties may in the future pirate our course materials and may infringe upon or misappropriate our other intellectual property. Infringement upon or the misappropriation of, our proprietary technologies or other intellectual property could have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition or operating results. Policing the unauthorized use of proprietary technology can be difficult and expensive. As of the date of this annual report, one of our Chinese trade-names, the WuYouYingYu (无忧英语), has been registered under the international category 41 of education or training and international category 42 of computer software.
Also, litigation may be necessary to enforce our intellectual property rights, protect our trade secrets or determine the validity and scope of the proprietary rights of others. Such litigation may be costly and divert management’s attention away from our business. An adverse determination in any such litigation would impair our intellectual property rights and may harm our business, prospects and reputation. Enforcement of judgments in China is uncertain, and even if we are successful in litigation and purchase insurance in advance to cover costs arising from litigation, these may not provide us with an effective and adequate remedy. The occurrence of any of the foregoing could have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition and results of operations.
We may encounter disputes from time to time relating to our use of intellectual property of third parties.
We cannot be certain that third parties will not claim that our business infringes upon or otherwise violates patents, copyrights or other intellectual property rights that they hold. We cannot assure you that third parties will not claim that our courses and marketing materials, online courses, products, and platform or other intellectual property developed or used by us infringe upon valid copyrights or other intellectual property rights that they hold. We may be subject to claims by educational institutions and organizations, content providers and publishers, competitors and others on the grounds of intellectual property rights infringement, defamation, negligence or other legal theories based on the content of the materials that we or our teachers distribute or use in our business operation. These types of claims have been brought, sometimes successfully, against print publications and educational institutions in the past. We may encounter disputes from time to time over rights and obligations concerning intellectual property, and we may not prevail in those disputes.
Any claims against us, with or without merit, could be time consuming and costly to defend or litigate, divert our management’s attention and resources or result in the loss of goodwill associated with our brand. If a lawsuit against us is successful, we may be required to pay substantial damages and/or enter into royalty or license agreements that may not be based upon commercially reasonable terms, or we may be unable to enter into such agreements at all. We may also lose, or be limited in, the rights to offer some of our programs, parts of our platform and products or be required to make changes to our course materials or websites. As a result, the scope of our course materials could be reduced, which could adversely affect the effectiveness of our curriculum, limit our ability to attract new students, harm our reputation and have a material adverse effect on our results of operations and financial position.
Failure to protect confidential information of our teachers and students against security breaches could damage our reputation and brand and substantially harm our business and results of operations.
A significant challenge to the online education industry is the secure storage of confidential information and its secure transmission over public networks. Other than purchases made by our corporate partners, purchases of our course packages are made through our website, our mobile apps, our WeChat public account and mini program, T-mall store, bank remittance, bank card, and third party platforms. In addition, online payments for our course packages are settled through third-party online payment services. Maintaining complete security for the storage and transmission of confidential information on our technology platform, such as student names, personal information and billing addresses, is essential to maintaining student confidence.
We have adopted security policies and measures to protect our proprietary data and student information. However, advances in technology, the expertise of hackers, new discoveries in the field of cryptography or other events or developments could result in a compromise or breach of the technology that we use to protect confidential information. We may not be able to prevent third parties, especially hackers or other individuals or entities engaging in similar activities, from illegally obtaining such confidential or private information we hold as a result of our students’ visits to our website and use of our mobile apps. Such individuals or entities obtaining our students’ confidential or private information may further engage in various other illegal activities using such information. Any negative publicity on our website’s or mobile apps’ safety or privacy protection mechanisms and policies, and any claims asserted against us or fines imposed upon us as a result of actual or perceived failures, could have a material and adverse effect on our public image, reputation, financial condition and results of operations.
Practices regarding the collection, use, storage, transmission and security of personal information by companies operating over the internet and mobile platforms have recently come under increased public scrutiny. Increased regulation by the PRC government of data privacy on the internet is likely, and we may become subject to new laws and regulations applying to the solicitation, collection, processing or use of personal or consumer information that could affect how we store and process the data of our teachers and students. For example, the MOE, jointly with other certain PRC government authorities, promulgated the Online After-School Training Opinions, which became effective on July 12, 2019 and provides that online after-school training institutions shall, among others, file with the competent provincial education regulatory authorities the certificate and the grade evaluation report for the graded protection of cyber security and the materials related to certain management systems regarding the protection of personal information and cyber security. See “Item 4. Information on the Company—B. Business Overview— Government Regulations—PRC Regulations— Regulations Relating to After-School Tutoring.” Further, the MOE, jointly with certain other PRC government authorities, issued the Opinions on Educational Applications on August 10, 2019, which requires that Educational Applications shall, among others, obtain the certificate and the grade evaluation report for graded protection of cyber security before filing with competent provincial regulatory authorities for education. See “Item 4. Information on the Company—B. Business Overview— Government Regulations—PRC Regulations— Regulation Relating to Educational Applications.” Moreover, the MOE, jointly with certain other PRC government authorities, issued the Opinions on Management of Online Class Platforms for Juveniles on November 27, 2020, which requires online class platforms for juveniles, among others, to resubmit for review and renew relevant filing with competent provincial regulatory authorities for education when launching a new application or adjusting a major function.The MOE expects to further promulgate implementation rules with respect to such requirements. See “Item 4. Information on the Company—B. Business Overview— Government Regulations—PRC Regulations— Regulation Relating to Online Class Platforms for Juveniles.” Furthermore, there are a number of legislative proposals in the European Union and the United States, at both the federal and state level, as well as other jurisdictions that could impose new obligations in areas affecting our business. We generally comply with industry standards and are subject to the terms of our own privacy policies. Compliance with any additional laws or regulations concerning data protection, or the interpretation and application of existing data protection laws or regulations, which is often uncertain and in flux, could be expensive, and may place restrictions on the conduct of our business and the manner in which we interact with our students. Any failure to comply with applicable regulations could also result in regulatory enforcement actions against us.
Significant capital and other resources may be required to protect against information security breaches or to alleviate problems caused by such breaches or to comply with our privacy policies or privacy-related legal obligations. The resources required may increase over time as the methods used by hackers and others engaged in online criminal activities are increasingly sophisticated and constantly evolving. Any failure or perceived failure by us to prevent information security breaches or to comply with privacy policies or privacy-related legal obligations, or any compromise of security that results in the unauthorized release or transfer of personally identifiable information or other student data, could cause our students to lose trust in us and could expose us to legal claims. Any perception by the public that online transactions or the privacy of user information are becoming increasingly unsafe or vulnerable to attacks could inhibit the growth of online education services generally, which may negatively impact our business prospects.
We face risks related to outbreaks of health epidemics, natural disasters, and other extraordinary events, which could significantly disrupt our operations and adversely affect our business, financial condition or results of operations.
Our business could be adversely affected by the outbreak of Zika, Ebola, avian influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, the influenza A (H1N1), H7N9, COVID-19 or other epidemics. Any of such occurrences could cause severe disruption to our daily operations, and may even require a temporary closure of our offices. Such closures may disrupt our business operations and adversely affect our results of operations. Our operation could also be disrupted if any of our students, teachers or business partners were affected by such health epidemics.
In December 2019, a novel strain of coronavirus was reported. This outbreak has led to temporary closure of our offices in many locations in the first quarter of 2020 with a significant portion of our employees working from home, which has resulted in lower work efficiency and productivity. For offices that have been re-opened, we have adopted and implemented health protocols allowing half of the employees to work onsite. During such outbreak period, incoming calls and trial lesson requests have increased, which we believe was a result of temporary closure of schools in China. However, due to inadequate course consultants, which was a result of implementation of our health protocols during such outbreak period, to help answering inquiries from potential customers, we experienced a lower-than-usual conversion rate. In addition, we also experienced difficulties in recruiting and hiring in China during such outbreak period. Our operations in the Philippines have also been affected by the outbreak and precautions taken in response there. We engage independently contracted teachers and operate offices in the Philippines. Both our employees and independently contracted teachers who work from home as a result of the outbreak suffered from declining efficiency or effectiveness as well as network quality issues. As a result, we experienced a declining trend in free trial lessons delivered by independently contracted teachers in the Philippines, which might further adversely impact our conversion rate.
While control measures have been relaxed and market demand has gradually recovered, there is uncertainty around the possibility of other effects on our business. In the event that this pandemic cannot be effectively and timely contained, our ability to consistently offer online lessons and related services in the future may be significantly disrupted, which in turn may harm the growth rate and retention of our students, as well as our financial performance generally.
We are also vulnerable to natural disasters and other calamities, including fire, floods, typhoons, earthquakes, power loss, telecommunications failures, break-ins, war, riots, terrorist attacks, and any other severe weather conditions or similar event may give rise to loss of personnel, damages to property, server interruptions, breakdowns, technology platform failures or internet failures, where our operations could be materially and adversely affected.
Territorial disputes between China and the Philippines may disrupt the Philippine economy and business environment, which may negatively impact our business operations in the Philippines.
The Philippines, China and several Southeast Asian nations have had a series of long-standing territorial disputes over certain islands in the South China Sea, also known as the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines maintains that its claim over the disputed territories is supported by recognized principles of international law consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Philippines brought the dispute to arbitration, of which the ruling was rejected by China.
Although the diplomatic relationship between the PRC and the Philippines has significantly improved and the dispute between the Philippines and the PRC has been thus assuaged since President Rodrigo Duterte and his government came into power in 2016, we cannot be sure that the territorial disputes will not escalate or new disputes will not arise in the future. Should these territorial disputes continue or escalate further, the Philippines and its economy may be disrupted and our operations could be adversely affected as a result. In particular, further disputes between the Philippines and China may lead both countries to impose trade restrictions on the other’s imports. Any such impact from these disputes could adversely affect the Philippine economy, and materially and adversely affect our business, financial position and financial performance.
Furthermore, as most of our independently contracted teachers are from the Philippines, any significant deterioration in China’s political relations with the Philippines could make it more difficult for us to attract independently contracted teachers or hire employees in the Philippines, and discourage some of our students from purchasing our course packages or our independently contracted teachers from offering lessons. Any prolonged intense diplomatic relations between China and the Philippines may adversely affect our business.
Our brand image, business and results of operations may be adversely impacted by students and independently contracted teachers’ misconduct and misuse of our platform.
Our platforms allow independently contracted teachers and students to engage in real-time communication. Because we do not have full control over how and what our independently contracted teachers and students will use our platform to communicate, our platforms may from time to time be misused by individuals or groups of individuals to engage in immoral, disrespectful, fraudulent or illegal activities. Though there have not been any such incidents on our platform that have been covered by media reports or internet forums, any such coverage could generate negative publicity about our brand and platform. We have implemented control procedures, such as training and sample auditing, to require our independently contracted teachers not to distribute any illegal or inappropriate content and conduct any illegal or fraudulent activities on our platforms, but such procedures may not prevent all such content or activities from being posted or carried out. Moreover, as we have limited control over the real-time and offline behavior of our students and independently contracted teachers, to the extent such behavior is associated with our platforms, our ability to protect our brand image and reputation may be limited. Our business and the public perception of our brand may be materially and adversely affected by misuse of our platform. In addition, if any of our students or independently contracted teachers suffers or alleges to have suffered physical, financial or emotional harm following contact initiated on our platform, we may face civil lawsuits or other liabilities initiated by the affected student or independently contracted teacher, or governmental or regulatory actions against us. In response to allegations of illegal or inappropriate activities conducted on our platform or any negative media coverage about us, PRC governmental authorities may intervene and hold us liable for non-compliance with PRC laws and regulations concerning the dissemination of information on the internet and subject us to administrative penalties or other sanctions, such as requiring us to restrict or discontinue some of the features and services provided on our platform. As a result, our business may suffer and our brand image, student base, results of operations and financial condition may be materially and adversely affected.
Our employees may engage in misconduct or other improper activities or misuse our platform, which could harm our reputation.
We are exposed to the risk of employee fraud or other misconduct. Employee misconduct could include intentionally failing to comply government regulations, engaging in unauthorized activities and misrepresentation to our potential students during marketing activities, which could harm our reputation. Employee misconduct could also involve improper use of our students’ and independently contracted teachers’ sensitive or classified information, which could result in regulatory sanctions against us and serious harm to our reputation. Employee misconduct could also involve making payments to government officials or third parties that would expose us to being in violation of laws. It is not always possible to deter employee misconduct, and the precautions we take to prevent and detect this activity may not be effective in controlling unknown or unmanaged risks or losses, which could harm our business, financial condition and results of operations.
Allegations, harassment or other detrimental conduct by third parties, as well as the public dissemination of negative, inaccurate or misleading information about us, could harm our reputation and adversely affect the price of our ADSs.
We may be subject to allegations by third parties or purported current or former employees, negative internet postings or other negative, inaccurate or misleading publicity related to our business and operations. We may also become the target of harassment or other detrimental conduct by third parties or disgruntled former or current employees. Such conduct may include complaints, anonymous or otherwise, to our board, advisors, regulatory agencies, media or other organizations. Depending on their nature and significance, we may need to conduct internal investigations to appropriately review any such allegations. We may also be subject to government or regulatory inquiries or, investigations or other proceedings as a result of such third-party conduct and may be required to spend significant time and incur substantial costs to address such conduct, and there is no assurance that we will be able to conclusively refute each of the allegations within a reasonable period of time, or at all. Allegations may be posted on the internet, including social media platforms, by anyone anonymously. Any negative, inaccurate or misleading publicity about us or our management can be quickly and widely disseminated. Social media platforms and devices immediately publish the content of their subscribers’ and participants’ posts, often without filters or checks on the accuracy of the content posted. Information posted on the internet or otherwise publicly released, including by us or our employees, may be inaccurate or misleading, and the information or the inaccurate or misleading nature of the information, may harm our reputation, business or prospects. The harm may be immediate without affording us an opportunity for redress or correction. Our reputation may be negatively affected as a result of the public dissemination of negative, inaccurate, or misleading information about our business and operations, which in turn may cause us to lose market share or students, and adversely affect the price of our ADSs.
We may not be able to achieve the benefits we expect from recent and future acquisitions, and recent and future acquisitions may have an adverse effect on our ability to manage our business.
We have made and intend to continue to make acquisitions or equity investments in additional businesses that complement our existing business. We may not be able to successfully integrate acquired businesses and we may not have control over the businesses or operations of our minority equity investments, the value of which may decline over time. As a result, our business and operating results could be harmed. In addition, if the businesses we acquire or invest in do not subsequently generate the anticipated financial performance or if any goodwill impairment test triggering event occurs, we may need to revalue or write down the value of goodwill and other intangible assets in connection with such acquisitions or investments, which would harm our results of operations. In addition, we may be unable to identify appropriate acquisition or strategic investment targets when it is necessary or desirable to make such acquisition or investment to remain competitive or to expand our business. Even if we identify an appropriate acquisition or investment target, we may not be able to negotiate the terms of the acquisition or investment successfully, finance the proposed transaction or integrate the relevant businesses into our existing business and operations. Furthermore, as we often do not have control over the companies in which we only have minority stake, we cannot ensure that these companies will always comply with applicable laws and regulations in their business operations. Material non-compliance by our investees may cause substantial harms to our reputations and the value of our investment.
Our use of some unregistered business premise could be challenged by the relevant government authorities, which may cause interruptions to our business operations.
As of December 31, 2020 we leased thirty-two office facilities in China for our operations. A portion of our business premises have not been registered with the local counterpart of the State Administration for Market Regulation, or SAMR (established by merged State Administration of Industry and Commerce, or the SAIC, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine and the China Food and Drug Administration according to 2018 Institutional Reform Plan), pursuant to the relevant PRC laws and regulations. If the relevant PRC government authorities discover or determine that Beijing Dasheng Zhixing Technology Co., Ltd., or Dasheng Zhixing, conducts business at unregistered business premises, it may order Dasheng Zhixing to make correction within a given period or to cease the use of such unregistered business premises as its business premises, and may concurrently levy a fine up to RMB100,000 on Dasheng Zhixing. As of the date of this annual report, we are not aware of any claims or actions being contemplated or initiated by governmental authorities or any other third parties with respect to our use of unregistered business premises to conduct our business in PRC. However, we cannot assure you that our use of such unregistered business premises will not be challenged. In addition, all of our leasehold interests in leased properties have not been registered with the relevant PRC governmental authorities as required by PRC law, which may expose us to potential fines.
Failure to renew our current leases or locate desirable alternatives for our facilities could materially and adversely affect our business.
We lease properties for our offices in China and the Philippines. We may not be able to successfully extend or renew such leases upon expiration of the current term on commercially reasonable terms or at all, and may therefore be forced to relocate our affected operations. This could disrupt our operations and result in significant relocation expenses, which could adversely affect our business, financial condition and results of operations. In addition, we compete with other businesses for premises at certain locations or of desirable sizes. As a result, even though we could extend or renew our leases, rental payments may significantly increase as a result of the high demand for the leased properties. In addition, we may not be able to locate desirable alternative sites for our facilities as our business continues to grow and failure in relocating our affected operations could adversely affect our business and operations.
The wide variety of payment methods that we accept subjects us to third-party payment processing-related risks.
We accept payments using a variety of methods, including bank transfers, online payments with credit cards and debit cards issued by major banks in China, and payment through third-party online payment platforms such as Alipay, WeChat Pay, China Merchants Bank Aggregate Paying Platform, 99bill and UnionPay. For certain payment methods, including credit and debit cards, we pay interchange and other fees, which may increase over time and raise our operating costs and lower our profit margins. We may also be susceptible to fraud and other illegal activities in connection with the various payment methods we offer. We are also subject to various rules, regulations and requirements, regulatory or otherwise, governing electronic funds transfers which could change or be reinterpreted to make it difficult or impossible for us to comply. If we fail to comply with these rules or requirements, we may be subject to fines and higher transaction fees and become unable to accept credit and debit card payments from our students, process electronic funds transfers or facilitate other types of online payments, and our business, financial condition and results of operations could be materially and adversely affected.
If our senior management is unable to work together effectively or efficiently or if we lose their services, our business may be severely disrupted.
Our success heavily depends upon the continued services of our management. In particular, we rely on the expertise and experience of Mr. Jack Jiajia Huang, our founder, chairman and chief executive officer, and Ms. Ting Shu, our co-founder, director, who are husband and wife. We also rely on the experience and services from other senior management, including Mr. Liming Zhang, our co-founder and chief operating officer, Mr. Min Xu, our chief financial officer. If they cannot work together effectively or efficiently, our business may be severely disrupted. If one or more of our senior management were unable or unwilling to continue in their present positions, we might not be able to replace them easily or at all, and our business, financial condition and results of operations may be materially and adversely affected. If any of our senior management joins a competitor or forms a competing business, we may lose students, teachers, and other key professionals and staff members. Our senior management has entered into employment agreements with us, including confidentiality and non-competition clauses. However, if any dispute arises between our officers and us, we may have to incur substantial costs and expenses in order to enforce such agreements in China or we may be unable to enforce them at all.
Currency fluctuations in the Philippine Peso, Hong Kong dollars or U.S. dollars against Renminbi could increase our expenses and materially and adversely affect our results of operations.
All of our revenues are denominated in Renminbi, and a significant portion of our costs are incurred in Philippine Pesos and U.S. dollars, including service fee payments to nearly all of our teachers. We engage independently contracted teachers and lease properties in the Philippines. We are exposed to the risk of cost increases due to inflation in the Philippines and the depreciation of Renminbi. In the third quarter of 2015, we began offering one-on-one lessons with independently contracted global teachers whose payments are made in U.S. dollars. We are therefore exposed to the risk of an increase in the value of the U.S. dollars against Renminbi, which would increase our expenses. Currency fluctuations in the Philippine Peso, Hong Kong dollars or U.S. dollars against Renminbi could create economic instability that may increase our expenses and harm our business operations.
The Philippines continues to experience inflation, currency declines and shortages of foreign exchange. In addition, the Renminbi has also fluctuated against the U.S. dollar, at times significantly and unpredictably. The conversion of Renminbi into foreign currencies, including U.S. dollars, is based on rates set by the People’s Bank of China and the value of the Renminbi against the U.S. dollar and other currencies is affected by, among other things, changes in China’s political and economic conditions and China’s foreign exchange policies. We cannot assure you that Renminbi will not appreciate or depreciate significantly in value against the U.S. dollar in the future. It is difficult to predict how market forces or PRC or U.S. government policy may impact the exchange rate between the RMB and the U.S. dollar in the future.
Very limited hedging options are available in China to reduce our exposure to exchange rate fluctuations. To date, we have not entered into any hedging transactions in an effort to reduce our exposure to foreign currency exchange risk. While we may decide to enter into hedging transactions in the future, the availability and effectiveness of these hedges may be limited and we may not be able to adequately hedge our exposure or at all. In addition, our currency exchange losses may be magnified by PRC exchange control regulations that restrict our ability to convert Renminbi into foreign currency. As a result, fluctuations in exchange rates may increase our expenses and have a material adverse effect on our results of operations.
We are subject to certain regional political and economic risks that may have a material adverse effect on our results of operations.
We engage independently contracted teachers and operate offices in the Philippines. Accordingly, our business, results of operations and financial condition may be materially and adversely affected by significant political, social and economic developments in the Philippines or changes in Philippine laws and regulations. In particular, our Philippine operations and our operating results may be adversely affected by:
|●||changes in policies of the government or changes in laws and regulations, or in the interpretation or enforcement of these laws and regulations;|
|●||measures that may be introduced to control inflation, such as interest rate increases or bank account withdrawal controls; and|
|●||changes in the tax laws and regulations.|
The Philippines has historically experienced low growth in its gross domestic product, significant inflation and shortages of foreign exchange. We are exposed to the risk of rental and other cost increases due to inflation in the Philippines, which has historically been at a much higher rate than in the United States. These conditions could create political or economic instability that may harm our business and results of operations.
In addition, the Philippines has in the past and may in the future experience political instability, including strikes, demonstrations, protests, marches, coups d’etat, guerilla activity or other types of civil disorder. These instabilities and any adverse changes in the political environment in the Philippines could increase our costs, increase our exposure to legal and business risks, disrupt our office operations in the Philippines or affect our ability to engage independently contracted teachers.
Our results of operations are subject to seasonal fluctuations.
Our industry generally experiences seasonality, reflecting a combination of traditional education industry patterns and new patterns associated with the online platform in particular. Seasonal fluctuations have affected, and are likely to continue to affect, our business. In general, our industry experiences lower growth of gross billings and net revenues in the first quarter due to the Chinese New Year holiday, and our industry enjoys higher growth during the summer months. We also noticed that K-12 students tend to take more lessons in the third quarter due to summer holidays and less in the fourth quarter during the fall semester as school workload is heavier, which affect our revenue recognitions for those quarters. Overall, the historical seasonality of our business has been relatively mild due to our rapid growth. As the percentage of K-12 students among our paying students and active students has been increasing during the past year, the seasonality may become more prominent, especially in the third quarter. Due to our limited operating history, the seasonal trends that we have experienced in the past may not be indicative of our future operating results. Our financial condition and results of operations for future periods may continue to fluctuate. As a result, the trading price of our ADSs may fluctuate from time to time due to seasonality.
We have granted options and restricted share units, and may continue to grant options, restricted share units and other types of awards under our share incentive plans, which may result in increased share-based compensation expenses.
We adopted share incentive plans in September 2013, or the 2013 Plan, and in December 2014, or the 2014 Plan. The 2014 Plan was amended in February 2016. Under the 2013 Plan and the 2014 Plan, we are authorized to grant options or share purchase rights to purchase up to an aggregate of 36,229,922 Class A ordinary shares as of the date of this annual report. In May 2016, we adopted the 2016 share incentive plan, or the 2016 Plan, pursuant to which a maximum of 4,600,000 Class A ordinary shares may be issued pursuant to all awards granted thereunder. Beginning in 2017, the number of shares reserved for future issuances under the 2016 Plan will be increased by a number equal to 1.5% of the total number of outstanding shares on the last day of the immediately preceding calendar year, or such lesser number of Class A ordinary shares as determined by our board of directors, during the term of the 2016 Plan. As of January 1, 2021, the maximum aggregate number of Class A ordinary shares which may be issued pursuant to all awards granted under the 2016 Plan was increased to 27,777,346. As of February 28, 2021, options to purchase a total of 19,301,695 Class A ordinary shares were issued and outstanding, and 140,625 restricted share units were outstanding under the 2013 Plan and the 2014 Plan. As of February 28, 2021, 7,363,399 restricted share units were outstanding under the 2016 Plan. As a result of grants and potential future grants under the 2013 Plan, the 2014 Plan and the 2016 Plan, we have incurred and will continue to incur share-based compensation expenses. We have recognized share-based compensation expense in the amount of RMB26.7 million (US$4.1 million) in 2020. We believe the granting of share-based compensation is of significant importance to our ability to attract and retain key personnel and employees, and we will continue to grant share-based compensation to employees in the future. As a result, our expenses associated with share-based compensation may increase, which may have an adverse effect on our results of operations.
We have limited insurance coverage for our operations in China and the Philippines, which could expose us to significant costs and business disruption.
We do not maintain any liability insurance or property insurance policies covering students, equipment and facilities for injuries, death or losses due to fire, earthquake, flood or any other disaster. Consistent with customary industry practice in China, we do not maintain business interruption insurance, nor do we maintain key-man life insurance. We maintain commercial medical insurance for our management in China and provide government-mandated medical insurance to all of our employees in the Philippines and China, with supplementary medical insurance to certain of our employees in the Philippines and China. However, as the insurance industry in China is still in an early stage of development, insurance companies in China currently offer limited business-related insurance products. We also have limited experience dealing with the insurance industry in the Philippines. We do not maintain business interruption insurance, nor do we maintain key-man life insurance. We cannot assure you that our insurance coverage is sufficient to prevent us from any loss or that we will be able to successfully claim our losses under our current insurance policy on a timely basis, or at all. If we incur any loss that is not covered by our insurance policies, or the compensated amount is significantly less than our actual loss, our business, financial condition and results of operations could be materially and adversely affected.
If we fail to implement and maintain an effective system of internal controls to remediate our material weakness over financial reporting, we may be unable to accurately report our results of operations, meet our reporting obligations or prevent fraud, and investor confidence and the market price of our ADSs may be materially and adversely affected.
Our independent registered public accounting firm has not conducted an audit of our internal control over financial reporting. However, in auditing our consolidated financial statements for the fiscal years ended December 31, 2018 and 2019, we and our independent registered public accounting firm identified one material weakness in our internal control over financial reporting, in accordance with the standards established by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board of the United States (PCAOB).
As defined in the standards established by the PCAOB, a “material weakness” is a deficiency, or combination of deficiencies, in internal control over financial reporting, such that there is a reasonable possibility that a material misstatement of the annual or interim financial statements will not be prevented or detected on a timely basis. The material weakness identified related to our lack of U.S. GAAP expertise to address complex U.S. GAAP technical accounting issues, related disclosures in accordance with U.S. GAAP and financial reporting requirements set forth by the SEC. The material weakness, if not timely remedied, may have led to significant misstatements in our consolidated financial statements in the future.
Following the identification of the material weakness, we have taken measures to remedy the material weakness. Our management has concluded that our internal control over financial reporting was effective as of December 31, 2020 after the remediation. For details on these initiatives, please see “Item 15. Controls and Procedures—Internal Control Over Financial Reporting—Remediation of the Material Weakness in Internal Control over Financial Reporting Reported in 2018 and 2019.”
The SEC, as required under Section 404 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, has adopted rules requiring public companies to include a report of management on the effectiveness of such companies’ internal control over financial reporting in their respective annual reports. In addition, an independent registered public accounting firm for a public company may be required to issue an attestation report on the effectiveness of such company’s internal control over financial reporting. This annual report on Form 20-F does not include an attestation report of our independent registered public accounting firm on internal control over financial reporting because we qualified as an “emerging growth company” as defined under the JOBS Act as of December 31, 2020. Our management may conclude that our internal control over financial reporting is not effective. Moreover, even if our management concludes that our internal control over financial reporting is effective, our independent registered public accounting firm, after conducting its own independent testing, may issue a report that is qualified if it is not satisfied with our internal controls or the level at which our controls are documented, designed, operated or reviewed, or if it interprets the relevant requirements differently from us. In addition, as we have become a public company, our reporting obligations may place a significant strain on our management, operational and financial resources and systems for the foreseeable future. We may be unable to timely complete our evaluation testing and any required remediation.
If we fail to achieve and maintain an effective internal control environment, we could suffer material misstatements in our consolidated financial statements and fail to meet our reporting obligations, which would likely cause investors to lose confidence in our reported financial information. This could in turn limit our access to capital markets, harm our results of operations, and lead to a decline in the trading price of our ADSs. Additionally, ineffective internal control over financial reporting could expose us to increased risk of fraud or misuse of corporate assets and subject us to potential delisting from the stock exchange on which we list, regulatory investigations and civil or criminal sanctions.
Our ADSs may be delisted under the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act if the PCAOB is unable to inspect auditors who are located in China. The delisting of our ADSs, or the threat of their being delisted, may materially and adversely affect the value of your investment. Additionally, the inability of the PCAOB to conduct inspections deprives our investors with the benefits of such inspections.
The Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, or the HFCA Act, was enacted on December 18, 2020. The HFCA Act states if the SEC determines that we have filed audit reports issued by a registered public accounting firm that has not been subject to inspection by the PCAOB for three consecutive years beginning in 2021, the SEC shall prohibit our shares or ADSs from being traded on a national securities exchange or in the over the counter trading market in the U.S.
Our auditor, the independent registered public accounting firm that issues the audit report included elsewhere in this annual report, as an auditor of companies that are traded publicly in the United States and a firm registered with the PCAOB, is subject to laws in the United States pursuant to which the PCAOB conducts regular inspections to assess its compliance with the applicable professional standards. Since our auditor is located in China, a jurisdiction where the PCAOB has been unable to conduct inspections without the approval of the Chinese authorities, our auditor is currently not inspected by the PCAOB.
On March 24, 2021, the SEC adopted interim final rules relating to the implementation of certain disclosure and documentation requirements of the HFCA Act. We will be required to comply with these rules if the SEC identifies us as having a “non-inspection” year under a process to be subsequently established by the SEC. The SEC is assessing how to implement other requirements of the HFCA Act, including the listing and trading prohibition requirements described above.
The SEC may propose additional rules or guidance that could impact us if our auditor is not subject to PCAOB inspection. For example, on August 6, 2020, the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets, or the PWG, issued the Report on Protecting United States Investors from Significant Risks from Chinese Companies to the then President of the United States. This report recommended the SEC implement five recommendations to address companies from jurisdictions that do not provide the PCAOB with sufficient access to fulfil its statutory mandate. Some of the concepts of these recommendations were implemented with the enactment of the HFCA Act. However, some of the recommendations were more stringent than the HFCA Act. For example, if a company was not subject to PCAOB inspection, the report recommended that the transition period before a company would be delisted would end on January 1, 2022.
The SEC has announced that the SEC staff is preparing a consolidated proposal for the rules regarding the implementation of the HFCA Act and to address the recommendations in the PWG report. It is unclear when the SEC will complete its rulemaking and when such rules will become effective and what, if any, of the PWG recommendations will be adopted. The implications of this possible regulation in addition the requirements of the HFCA Act are uncertain. Such uncertainty could cause the market price of our ADSs to be materially and adversely affected, and our securities could be delisted or prohibited from being traded “over-the-counter” earlier than would be required by the HFCA Act. If our securities are unable to be listed on another securities exchange by then, such a delisting would substantially impair your ability to sell or purchase our ADSs when you wish to do so, and the risk and uncertainty associated with a potential delisting would have a negative impact on the price of our ADSs.
The PCAOB’s inability to conduct inspections in China prevents it from fully evaluating the audits and quality control procedures of our independent registered public accounting firm. As a result, we and investors in our ordinary shares are deprived of the benefits of such PCAOB inspections. The inability of the PCAOB to conduct inspections of auditors in China makes it more difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of our independent registered public accounting firm’s audit procedures or quality control procedures as compared to auditors outside of China that are subject to the PCAOB inspections, which could cause investors and potential investors in our stock to lose confidence in our audit procedures and reported financial information and the quality of our financial statements.
In May 2013, the PCAOB announced that it had entered into a Memorandum of Understanding on Enforcement Cooperation with the CSRC and the PRC Ministry of Finance, which establishes a cooperative framework between the parties for the production and exchange of audit documents relevant to investigations undertaken by the PCAOB in the PRC or by the CSRC or the PRC Ministry of Finance in the United States. The PCAOB continues to be in discussions with the CSRC and the PRC Ministry of Finance to permit joint inspections in the PRC of audit firms that are registered with the PCAOB and audit Chinese companies that trade on U.S. exchanges.
Proceedings instituted by the SEC against certain PRC-based accounting firms, including our independent registered public accounting firm, could result in financial statements being determined to not be in compliance with the requirements of the Exchange Act.
In December 2012, the SEC instituted administrative proceedings against the Big Four PRC-based accounting firms, including our independent registered public accounting firm, alleging that these firms had violated U.S. securities laws and the SEC’s rules and regulations thereunder by failing to provide to the SEC the firms’ audit work papers with respect to certain PRC-based companies that are publicly traded in the United States. On January 22, 2014, the administrative law judge, or the ALJ, presiding over the matter rendered an initial decision that each of the firms had violated the SEC’s rules of practice by failing to produce audit work papers to the SEC. The initial decision censured each of the firms and barred them from practicing before the SEC for a period of six months. On February 6, 2015, the four China-based accounting firms each agreed to a censure and to pay a fine to the SEC to settle the dispute and avoid suspension of their ability to practice before the SEC and audit U.S.-listed companies. The settlement required the firms to follow detailed procedures and to seek to provide the SEC with access to Chinese firms’ audit documents via the CSRC.
Under the terms of the settlement, the underlying proceeding against the four China-based accounting firms was deemed dismissed with prejudice four years after entry of the settlement. The four-year mark occurred on February 6, 2019. While we cannot predict if the SEC will further challenge the four China-based accounting firms’ compliance with U.S. law in connection with U.S. regulatory requests for audit work papers or if the results of such a challenge would result in the SEC imposing penalties such as suspensions, if the accounting firms are subject to additional remedial measures, our ability to file our financial statements in compliance with SEC requirements could be impacted. A determination that we have not timely filed financial statements in compliance with SEC requirements could ultimately lead to the delisting of our ADSs from the NYSE or the termination of the registration of our ADSs under the Exchange Act, or both, which would substantially reduce or effectively terminate the trading of our ADSs in the United States.
Rising international political tension, including changes in U.S. and international trade policies, particularly with regard to China, may adversely impact our investor sentiment.
The U.S. government has made statements and taken certain actions that may lead to potential changes to U.S. and international trade policies towards China. In January 2020, the “Phase One” agreement was signed between the United States and China on trade matters. However, it remains unclear what additional actions, if any, will be taken by the U.S. or other governments with respect to international trade agreements, the imposition of tariffs on goods imported into the U.S., tax policy related to international commerce, or other trade matters Against this backdrop, China has implemented, and may further implement, measures in response to the changing trade policies, treaties, tariffs and sanctions and restrictions against Chinese companies initiated by the U.S. government. For example, the Ministry of Commerce of China published Measures for Blocking Improper Extraterritorial Application of Foreign Laws and Measures in January 2021 to counter restrictions imposed by extraterritorial application of foreign laws and measures upon any Chinese citizen, legal person or other organization from conducting normal economic and trade activities and relevant activities with any third country (region) or its citizen, legal person or other organization. Rising trade and political tensions could reduce levels of trades, investments, technological exchanges and other economic activities between China and other countries, which would have an adverse effect on global economic conditions, the stability of global financial markets, and international trade policies. It could also adversely affect the financial and economic conditions in the jurisdictions in which we operate, as well as our overseas expansion, our financial condition, and results of operations.
While we Currently do not operate U.S.-related cross-border business, any unfavorable government policies on international trade, such as capital controls or tariffs, may affect the demand for our services, impact our competitive position or prevent us from providing services in certain countries. If any new tariffs, legislation and/or regulations are implemented, or if existing trade agreements are renegotiated or, in particular, if the U.S. government takes retaliatory trade actions due to the recent U.S.-China trade tension, such changes could have an adverse effect on our business, financial condition and results of operations.
It may be difficult for overseas regulators to conduct investigation or collect evidence within China.
Shareholder claims or regulatory investigation that are common in the United States generally are difficult to pursue as a matter of law or practicality in China. For example, in China, there are significant legal and other obstacles to providing information needed for regulatory investigations or litigation initiated outside China. Although the authorities in China may establish a regulatory cooperation mechanism with the securities regulatory authorities of another country or region to implement cross-border supervision and administration, such cooperation with the securities regulatory authorities in the Unities States may not be efficient in the absence of mutual and practical cooperation mechanism. Furthermore, according to Article 177 of the PRC Securities Law, or Article 177, which became effective in March 2020, no overseas securities regulator is allowed to directly conduct investigation or evidence collection activities within the territory of the PRC. While detailed interpretation of or implementation rules under Article 177 have yet to be promulgated, the inability for an overseas securities regulator to directly conduct investigation or evidence collection activities within China may further increase difficulties faced by you in protecting your interests.
Risks Related to Our Corporate Structure
If the PRC government finds that the contractual arrangements that establish the structure for holding our ICP license do not comply with applicable PRC laws and regulations, we could be subject to severe penalties or be forced to relinquish our interests in those operations.
Foreign ownership in entities that provide value-added telecommunication services, is subject to restrictions under current PRC laws and regulations. For example, in accordance with the Negative List, and other applicable laws and regulations, foreign investors are not allowed to own more than 50% of the equity interests in a value-added telecommunication service provider (except for e-commerce) and any such foreign investor must have experience in providing value-added telecommunications services overseas and maintain a good track record.
We are a Cayman Islands company and our PRC subsidiaries, Beijing Dasheng Online Technology Co., Ltd., or Dasheng Online, and Beijing Helloworld Online Technology Co., Ltd, or Helloworld Online, are considered foreign-invested enterprises. To comply with PRC laws and regulations, we operate our www.51talk.com website through our PRC consolidated VIE, Dasheng Zhixing. Dasheng Zhixing holds our ICP License for www.51talk.com. Dasheng Zhixing is 73.75% owned by Mr. Jack Jiajia Huang, and 26.25% owned by Ms. Ting Shu.
We operate our Hawo (哈沃) brand through our PRC consolidated VIE, Beijing Dasheng Helloworld Technology Co., Ltd., or Dasheng Helloworld. Dasheng Helloworld is 100% owned by Mr. Jack Jiajia Huang. We operate our research on video and audio technologies through one of our PRC consolidated VIEs, Shenzhen Dasheng Zhiyun Technology Co., Ltd., or Dasheng Zhiyun. Dasheng Zhiyun is 80% owned by Mr. Jack Jiajia Huang, 10% owned by Mr. Caijian Jia, and 10% owned by Mr. Jing Chen. All shareholders of our PRC consolidated VIEs are PRC citizens. We entered into a series of contractual arrangements with our PRC consolidated VIEs and their respective shareholders, which enable us to:
|●||exercise effective control over our PRC consolidated VIEs;|
|●||receive substantially all of the economic benefits; and|
|●||have an exclusive option to purchase all or part of the equity interests in our PRC consolidated VIEs when and to the extent permitted by PRC law.|
Because of these contractual arrangements, we are the primary beneficiaries of Dasheng Zhixing, Dasheng Helloworld and Dasheng Zhiyun and treat them as our PRC consolidated VIEs under U.S. GAAP. We consolidate the financial results of Dasheng Zhixing, Dasheng Helloworld and Dasheng Zhiyun in our consolidated financial statements in accordance with U.S. GAAP. For a detailed discussion of these contractual arrangements, see “Corporate History and Structure.”
Tian Yuan Law Firm, our PRC legal counsel, is of the opinion that (i) the ownership structures of Dasheng Zhixing and Dasheng Online, of Helloworld Online and Dasheng Helloworld, and of Dasheng Online and Dasheng Zhiyun as of the date of this annual report will not result in any violation of PRC laws or regulations currently in effect; and (ii) the contractual arrangements among Dasheng Online, Dasheng Zhixing and its shareholders, among Helloworld Online, Dasheng Helloworld and its shareholders, and among Dasheng Online, Dasheng Zhiyun and its shareholders governed by PRC law as of the date of this annual report are valid, binding and enforceable, and will not result in any violation of PRC laws or regulations currently in effect. There are, however, substantial uncertainties regarding the interpretation and application of current or future PRC laws and regulations concerning foreign investment in the PRC, and their application to and effect on the legality, binding effect and enforceability of the contractual arrangements. In particular, we cannot rule out the possibility that PRC regulatory authorities, courts or arbitral tribunals may in the future adopt a different or contrary interpretation or take a view that is inconsistent with the opinion of our PRC legal counsel.
It is uncertain whether any new PRC laws, rules or regulations relating to VIE structures will be adopted or if adopted, what affect they may have on our corporate structure. See “Item 3. Key Information—D. Risk Factors—Risks Related to Our Corporate Structure—Substantial uncertainties exist with respect to the interpretation and implementation of the Foreign Investment Law (including its implementing regulations) and how it may impact the viability of our current corporate structure, corporate governance and business operations.
If, as a result of our contractual arrangements, we or our PRC consolidated VIEs are found to be in violation of any existing or future PRC laws or regulations, or such contractual arrangement is determined as illegal and invalid by the PRC court, arbitral tribunal or regulatory authorities, or we fail to obtain, maintain or renew any of the required permits or approvals, the relevant PRC regulatory authorities would have broad discretion to take action in dealing with such violations or failures, including:
|●||revoking the business licenses and/or operating licenses of our PRC consolidated VIEs and/or our WFOEs;|
|●||discontinuing or restricting the conduct of any transactions between our PRC consolidated VIEs and our WFOEs;|
|●||limiting our business expansion in China by way of entering into contractual arrangements;|
|●||imposing fines, confiscating the income from our PRC consolidated VIEs, or imposing other requirements with which we or our PRC consolidated VIEs may not be able to comply with;|
|●||shutting down our servers or blocking our websites;|
|●||requiring us to restructure our ownership structure or operations, including terminating the contractual arrangements with our PRC consolidated VIEs and deregistering the equity pledges of our PRC consolidated VIEs;|
|●||restricting or prohibiting our use of the proceeds of our equity offerings to finance our business and operations in China;|
|●||imposing additional conditions or requirements with which we may not be able to comply with; or|
|●||take other regulatory or enforcement actions against us that could be harmful to our business.|
The imposition of any of these penalties could result in a material and adverse effect on our ability to conduct our business and on our results of operations. If any of these penalties results in our inability to direct the activities of our PRC consolidated VIEs that most significantly impact its economic performance, and/or our failure to receive the economic benefits from our PRC consolidated VIEs we may not be able to consolidate our PRC consolidated VIEs in our consolidated financial statements in accordance with U.S. GAAP.
We rely on contractual arrangements with our PRC consolidated VIEs and their respective shareholders for a portion of our business operations, which may not be as effective as direct ownership in providing operational control.
We have relied and expect to continue to rely on contractual arrangements with our PRC consolidated VIEs and their respective shareholders, to operate our businesses under the WuYouYingYu (无忧英语) brand, the Hawo (哈沃) brand and the 51talk brand. For a description of these contractual arrangements, see “Item 4. Information on the Company — C. Organization Structure.” These contractual arrangements may not be as effective as direct ownership in providing us with control over our PRC consolidated VIEs. For example, our PRC consolidated VIEs and their respective shareholders could breach their contractual arrangements with us by, among other things, failing to conduct their operations, including maintaining our website and using the domain names and trademarks, in an acceptable manner or taking other actions that are detrimental to our interests.
If we had direct ownership of our PRC consolidated VIEs, we would be able to exercise our rights as a shareholder to effect changes in the board of directors of our PRC consolidated VIEs, which in turn could effect changes, subject to any applicable fiduciary obligations, at the management level. However, under the current contractual arrangements, we rely on the performance by our PRC consolidated VIEs and their respective shareholders of their obligations under the contracts to exercise control over our PRC consolidated VIEs. However, the shareholders of our PRC consolidated VIEs may not act in the best interests of our company or may not perform their obligations under these contracts. Such risks exist throughout the period in which we intend to operate our business through the contractual arrangements with our PRC consolidated VIEs. We may replace the shareholders of our PRC consolidated VIEs at any time pursuant to our contractual arrangements with it and its shareholders. However, if any dispute relating to these contracts remains unresolved, we will have to enforce our rights under these contracts through the operations of PRC law and therefore will be subject to uncertainties in the PRC legal system. See “—Any failure by our PRC consolidated VIEs, Philippines Co I, Philippines Co II, Philippines Co III or their respective shareholders to perform their obligations under our contractual arrangements with them would have a material and adverse effect on our business.” Therefore, our contractual arrangements with our PRC consolidated VIEs may not be as effective in ensuring our control over the relevant portion of our business operations as direct ownership would be.
Substantial uncertainties exist with respect to the interpretation and implementation of the Foreign Investment Law (including its implementing regulations) and how it may impact the viability of our current corporate structure, corporate governance and business operations.
On March 15, 2019, the National People’s Congress adopted the Foreign Investment Law of the PRC, which became effective on January 1, 2020 and replaced three laws regulating foreign investment in China, namely, the Wholly Foreign-Invested Enterprise Law of the PRC, the Sino-Foreign Cooperative Joint Venture Enterprise Law of the PRC and the Sino-Foreign Equity Joint Venture Enterprise Law of the PRC, together with their implementation rules and ancillary regulations. On December 26, 2019, the State Council issued the Regulations on Implementing the Foreign Investment Law of the PRC, which came into effect on January 1, 2020, and replaced the Regulations on Implementing the Sino-Foreign Equity Joint Venture Enterprise Law, Provisional Regulations on the Duration of Sino-Foreign Equity Joint Venture Enterprise Law, the Regulations on Implementing the Wholly Foreign-Invested Enterprise Law , and the Regulations on Implementing the Sino-Foreign Cooperative Joint Venture Enterprise Law. The Foreign Investment Law of the PRC embodies an expected PRC regulatory trend to rationalize its foreign investment regulatory regime in line with prevailing international practice and the legislative efforts to unify the corporate legal requirements for both foreign and domestic investments. Under the Foreign Investment Law of the PRC, VIEs that are controlled via contractual arrangement would not be absolutely deemed as Foreign-Invested Enterprises, or FIEs. Therefore, the current legal status of Contractual Arrangement as a whole and each of the agreements comprising the Contractual Arrangement will not be materially affected by the Foreign Investment Law of the PRC and its implementing regulations. However, since it is relatively new, uncertainties still exist in relation to its interpretation and implementation. For example, the Foreign Investment Law of the PRC adds a catch-all clause to the definition of “foreign investment” so that foreign investment, by its definition, includes “investments made by foreign investors in China through other means defined by other laws or administrative regulations or provisions promulgated by the State Council” without further elaboration on the meaning of “other means.” It leaves leeway for the future legislations promulgated by the State Council to provide for contractual arrangements as a form of foreign investment. It is therefore uncertain whether our corporate structure will be seen as violating the foreign investment rules as we are currently leverage the contractual arrangement to operate certain businesses in which foreign investors are prohibited from or restricted to investing. Furthermore, if future legislations prescribed by the State Council mandate further actions to be taken by companies with respect to existing contractual arrangement, we may face substantial uncertainties as to whether we can complete such actions in a timely manner, or at all. If we fail to take appropriate and timely measures to comply with any of these or similar regulatory compliance requirements, our current corporate structure, corporate governance and business operations could be materially and adversely affected.
Any failure by our PRC consolidated VIEs, Philippines Co I, Philippines Co II, Philippines Co III or their respective shareholders to perform their obligations under our contractual arrangements with them would have a material and adverse effect on our business.
If our PRC consolidated VIEs, Philippines Co I, Philippines Co II, Philippines Co III or their respective shareholders fail to perform their obligations under the contractual arrangements, we may have to incur substantial costs and expend additional resources to enforce such arrangements. We may also have to rely on legal remedies under PRC law or Philippine law, including seeking specific performance or injunctive relief, and claiming damages, which we cannot assure you will be effective. For example, if the shareholders of our PRC consolidated VIEs, Philippines Co I, Philippines Co II or Philippines Co III were to refuse to transfer their equity interest in our PRC consolidated VIEs, Philippines Co I, Philippines Co II or Philippines Co III to us or our designee if we exercise the purchase option pursuant to these contractual arrangements, or if they were otherwise to act in bad faith toward us, then we may have to take legal actions to compel them to perform their contractual obligations.
All the agreements under our contractual arrangements with our PRC consolidated VIEs are governed by PRC law and provide for the resolution of disputes through arbitration in China. Accordingly, these contracts would be interpreted in accordance with PRC law and any disputes would be resolved in accordance with PRC legal procedures. The legal system in the PRC is not as developed as in some other jurisdictions, such as the United States. As a result, uncertainties in the PRC legal system could limit our ability to enforce these contractual arrangements. Under PRC law, if the losing parties fail to carry out the arbitration awards within a prescribed time limit, the prevailing parties may only enforce the arbitration awards in PRC courts through arbitration award recognition proceedings, which would require additional expenses and delay. In the event we are unable to enforce these contractual arrangements, we may not be able to exert effective control over our PRC consolidated VIEs and our ability to conduct our business may be negatively affected.
If the custodians or authorized users of our controlling non-tangible assets, including chops and seals, fail to fulfill their responsibilities, or misappropriate or misuse these assets, our business and operations could be materially and adversely affected.
Under PRC law, legal documents for corporate transactions, including agreements and contracts such as the leases and sales contracts that our business relies on, are executed using the chop or seal of the signing entity or with the signature of a legal representative whose designation is registered and filed with the relevant local counterpart of the SAMR. We generally execute legal documents by affixing chops or seals, rather than having the designated legal representatives sign the documents.
We have three major types of chops—corporate chops, contract chops and finance chops. We use corporate chops generally for documents to be submitted to government agencies, such as applications for changing business scope, directors or company name, and for legal letters. We use contract chops for executing leases and commercial contracts. We use finance chops generally for making and collecting payments, including, but not limited to issuing invoices. Use of corporate chops and contract chops must be approved by our legal department and administrative department, and use of finance chops must be approved by our finance department. The chops of our PRC subsidiaries and our PRC consolidated VIEs are generally held by the relevant entities so that documents can be executed locally. Although we usually utilize chops to execute contracts, the registered legal representatives of our PRC subsidiaries and our PRC consolidated VIEs have the apparent authority to enter into contracts on behalf of such entities without chops, unless such contracts set forth otherwise. All designated legal representatives of our PRC subsidiaries and our PRC consolidated VIEs have signed employment agreements with us under which they agree to abide by duties they owe to us.
In order to maintain the physical security of our chops, we generally have them stored in secured locations accessible only to the department heads of the legal, administrative or finance departments. Our designated legal representatives generally do not have access to the chops. Although we monitor our employees, including the designated legal representatives of our PRC subsidiaries and our consolidated VIEs, the procedures may not be sufficient to prevent all instances of abuse or negligence. There is a risk that our employees or designated legal representatives could abuse their authority, for example, by binding the relevant subsidiaries or consolidated VIEs with contracts against our interests, as we would be obligated to honor these contracts if the other contracting party acts in good faith in reliance on the apparent authority of our chops or signatures of our legal representatives. If any designated legal representative obtains control of the chop in an effort to obtain control over the relevant entity, we would need to have a shareholder or board resolution to designate a new legal representative and to take legal action to seek the return of the chop, apply for a new chop with the relevant authorities, or otherwise seek legal remedies for the legal representative’s misconduct. If any of the designated legal representatives obtains and misuses or misappropriates our chops and seals or other controlling intangible assets for whatever reason, we could experience disruption to our normal business operations. We may have to take corporate or legal action, which could involve significant time and resources to resolve while distracting management from our operations.
The shareholders of our PRC consolidated VIEs may have potential conflicts of interest with us, which may materially and adversely affect our business and financial condition.
We have designated individuals who are PRC nationals to be the shareholders of our PRC consolidated VIEs. Dasheng Zhixing is owned by Mr. Jack Jiajia Huang and Ms. Ting Shu. Dasheng Helloworld is 100% owned by Mr. Jack Jiajia Huang. Dasheng Zhiyun is 80% owned by Mr. Jack Jiajia Huang, 10% owned by Mr. Caijian Jia, and 10% owned by Mr. Jing Chen. The interests of these individuals as the shareholders of our PRC consolidated VIEs may differ from the interests of our company as a whole. These shareholders may breach, or cause our PRC consolidated VIEs to breach, or refuse to renew, the existing contractual arrangements we have with them and our PRC consolidated VIEs, which would have a material and adverse effect on our ability to effectively control our PRC consolidated VIEs. We cannot assure you that when conflicts of interest arise, any or all of these shareholders will act in the best interests of our company or such conflicts will be resolved in our favor.
Currently, we do not have any arrangements to address potential conflicts of interest between these shareholders and our company, except that we could exercise our purchase option under the purchase option agreements with these shareholders to request them to transfer all of their equity ownership in our PRC consolidated VIEs to our WFOEs or one or more individuals designated by us. We rely on Mr. Jack Jiajia Huang and Ms. Ting Shu, both of which are our directors, to abide by PRC law, which provides that directors owe a fiduciary duty to the company. Such fiduciary duty requires directors to act in good faith and in the best interests of the company and not to use their positions for personal gains. If we cannot resolve any conflict of interest or dispute between us and the shareholders of our PRC consolidated VIEs, we would have to rely on legal proceedings, which could result in disruption of our business and subject us to substantial uncertainty as to the outcome of any such legal proceedings.
We may rely on dividends and other distributions on equity paid by our PRC subsidiaries to fund any cash and financing requirements we may have, and any limitation on the ability of our PRC subsidiaries to make payments to us could have a material and adverse effect on our ability to conduct our business.
We are a holding company, and we may rely on dividends and other distributions on equity paid by our PRC subsidiaries, Dasheng Online and Helloworld Online, for our cash and financing requirements, including the funds necessary to pay dividends and other cash distributions to our shareholders and service any debt we may incur. If our PRC subsidiaries incur debt on its own behalf in the future, the instruments governing the debt may restrict its ability to pay dividends or make other distributions to us. In addition, the PRC tax authorities may require Dasheng Online or Helloworld Online to adjust its taxable income under the contractual arrangements it currently has in place with our PRC consolidated VIEs in a manner that would materially and adversely affect its ability to pay dividends and other distributions to us. See “Our contractual arrangements may be subject to scrutiny by the PRC tax authorities, and a finding that we owe additional taxes could substantially reduce our consolidated net income and the value of your investment.”
Under PRC laws and regulations, any companies within the PRC may pay dividends only out of its respective accumulated profits as determined in accordance with PRC accounting standards and regulations. In addition, a PRC company is required to set aside at least 10% of its annual after-tax profits, if any, to fund the statutory reserve fund, until the aggregate amount of such fund reaches 50% of its registered capital. At its discretion, a wholly foreign-owned enterprise may or may not allocate certain portion of its after-tax profits to the discretional reserve fund. The statutory reserve fund and discretional reserve fund (if any) are not distributable as cash dividends.
Any limitation on the ability of our PRC subsidiaries to pay dividends or make other distributions to us could materially and adversely limit our ability to grow, make investments or acquisitions that could be beneficial to our business, pay dividends, or otherwise fund and conduct our business. See also “—Risks Related to Doing Business in China—Under the PRC Enterprise Income Tax Law, we may be classified as a PRC “resident enterprise” for PRC enterprise income tax purposes. Such classification would likely result in unfavorable tax consequences to us and our non-PRC shareholders and has a material adverse effect on our results of operations and the value of your investment.”
Our contractual arrangements may be subject to scrutiny by the PRC tax authorities, and a finding that we owe additional taxes could substantially reduce our consolidated net income and the value of your investment.
Under PRC laws and regulations, arrangements and transactions among related parties may be subject to audit or challenge by the PRC tax authorities. We could face material and adverse tax consequences if the PRC tax authorities determine that the contractual arrangements among our PRC subsidiaries, and our PRC consolidated VIEs do not represent an arm’s-length price and adjust our PRC consolidated VIEs’ income in the form of a transfer pricing adjustment. A transfer pricing adjustment could, among other things, result in a reduction, for PRC tax purposes, of expense deductions recorded by our PRC consolidated VIEs, which could in turn increase their tax liabilities. In addition, the PRC tax authorities may impose late payment fees and other penalties to our PRC consolidated VIEs for under-paid taxes. Our consolidated net income may be materially and adversely affected if our tax liabilities increase or if we are found to be subject to late payment fees or other penalties.
If any of our PRC consolidated VIEs becomes the subject of a bankruptcy or liquidation proceeding, we may lose the ability to use and enjoy its assets, which could reduce the size of our operations and materially and adversely affect our business, ability to generate revenues and the market price of our ADSs.
To comply with PRC laws and regulations relating to foreign ownership restrictions in the online value-added telecommunications business, we entered into contractual arrangements with our PRC consolidated VIEs and their respective shareholders. As part of these arrangements, our PRC consolidated VIEs hold assets that are important to the operation of our business.
We do not have priority pledges and liens against assets of our PRC consolidated VIEs. As a contractual and property right matter, this lack of priority pledges and liens has remote risks. If any of our PRC consolidated VIEs undergoes an involuntary liquidation proceeding, third-party creditors may claim rights to some or all of its assets and we may not have priority against such third-party creditors on assets of our PRC consolidated VIEs. If any of our PRC consolidated VIEs liquidates, we may take part in the liquidation procedures as a general creditor under the PRC Enterprise Bankruptcy Law and recover any outstanding liabilities owed by our PRC consolidated VIEs to our WFOEs under the applicable service agreements. To ameliorate the risks of an involuntary liquidation proceeding initiated by a third-party creditor, we closely monitor the operations and finances of our PRC consolidated VIEs through carefully designed budgetary and internal controls to ensure that our PRC consolidated VIEs are well capitalized and are highly unlikely to trigger any third-party monetary claims in excess of their respective assets and cash resources. Furthermore, our WFOEs have the ability, if necessary, to provide finance support to our PRC consolidated VIEs to prevent such an involuntary liquidation.
If the shareholders of our PRC consolidated VIEs were to attempt to voluntarily liquidate our PRC consolidated VIEs without obtaining our prior consent, we could effectively prevent such unauthorized voluntary liquidation by exercising our right to request our PRC consolidated VIEs’ shareholders to transfer all of their equity ownership interest to our WFOEs or one or more individuals designated by us in accordance with the option agreements with the shareholders of our PRC consolidated VIEs. In the event that the shareholders of our PRC consolidated VIEs initiates a voluntary liquidation proceeding without our authorization or attempts to distribute the retained earnings or assets of our PRC consolidated VIEs without our prior consent, we may need to resort to legal proceedings to enforce the terms of the contractual agreements. Any such litigation may be costly and may divert our management’s time and attention away from the operation of our business, and the outcome of such litigation would be uncertain.
Risks Related to Doing Business in China
Uncertainties in the interpretation and enforcement of PRC laws and regulations could limit the legal protections available to you and us.
The PRC legal system is based on written statutes. Unlike common law systems, it is a system in which legal cases have limited value as precedents. In the late 1970s, the PRC government began to promulgate a comprehensive system of laws and regulations governing economic matters in general. The overall effect of legislation over the past three decades has significantly increased the protections afforded to various forms of foreign or private-sector investment in China. Our PRC subsidiaries are subject to various PRC laws and regulations generally applicable to companies in China. However, since these laws and regulations are relatively new and the PRC legal system continues to rapidly evolve, the interpretations of many laws, regulations and rules are not always uniform and enforcement of these laws, regulations and rules involve uncertainties.
From time to time, we may have to resort to administrative and court proceedings to enforce our legal rights. However, since PRC administrative and court authorities have significant discretion in interpreting and implementing statutory and contractual terms, it may be more difficult to evaluate the outcome of administrative and court proceedings and the level of legal protection we enjoy than in more developed legal systems. Furthermore, the PRC legal system is based in part on government policies and internal rules (some of which are not published in a timely manner or at all) that may have retroactive effect. As a result, we may not be aware of our violation of these policies and rules until sometime after the violation. Such uncertainties, including uncertainty over the scope and effect of our contractual, property (including intellectual property) and procedural rights, and any failure to respond to changes in the regulatory environment in China could materially and adversely affect our business and impede our ability to continue our operations.
We may be adversely affected by the complexity, uncertainties and changes in PRC regulation on Online Education
On December 28, 2002, the NPC Standing Committee promulgated the Law for Promoting Private Education, or the Private Education Law and was last amended on December 29, 2018, the amendment of which also took effect on December 29, 2018. Pursuant to the amended Private Education Law, a “private school” may be organized as a non-profit or for-profit school at the discretion of its sponsor who shall obtain approval or a certain operating permit granted by, and register the school with, relevant government authorities. See “Item 4. Information on the Company—B. Business Overview—Government regulations—PRC Regulations—Regulation Relating to Private Education—The Law for Promoting Private Education and Its Implementing Rules.” We, as an online education service provider, are different from traditional offline education service providers, and prior to the publication of the amended Private Education Law in November 2016, in practice, limited liability companies engaging in educational consulting services, tutoring services and similar types of training activities that operate without private school operating permits were generally considered not regulated by the pre-amended Private Education Law. It remains unclear in practice as to whether and how an online education service provider needs to comply with the operating permit requirement under the amended Private Education Law.
On August 10, 2018, the Ministry of Justice (the “MOJ “) published the draft submitted for approval for the amendment to the Regulations on the Implementation of the Private Education Promotion Law of the PRC (the “MOJ Draft for Approval”), for public comments. The MOJ Draft for Approval stipulates that the establishment of private training and educational organizations enrolling students of kindergarten, primary school, middle and high school age and implementing activities relating to cultural and educational courses at school, or examination-related and further education-related tutoring and other cultural and educational activities, would be subject to the review and approval of the administrative departments for education of the governments at or above the county level in accordance with the Article 12 of the Private Education Promotion Law of the PRC. The establishment of private training and educational organizations that implement activities aiming at quality promotion, personality development in the areas of linguistic competence, arts, physical activities, technology, and activities targeting at cultural education for adults and non-degree continuing education, can apply to register as the legal person directly. However, such private training and/or educational organization must not carry out the cultural and educational activities mentioned above, which requires the review and approval of the administrative departments for education. Further, such private training and/or educational organizations which provide online training and/or educational services through internet technology are required to obtain corresponding internet operation permits. Pursuant to the MOJ Draft for Approval, a private training and educational organization like us would not be required to apply for a school operating permit. However, it is unclear what the corresponding internet operation permits refer to. As of the date of this annual report, the MOJ Draft for Approval was still pending for final approval and was not in effect. It remains uncertain when and how the MOJ Draft for Approval would come into effect, and how local government would promulgate and implement rules related to the filing or licensing requirement applicable to online education service providers.
In addition, the differences between “training services” and “educational consulting services” were unclear under PRC law with no laws specifically providing that the scope of “educational consulting services” is not broad enough to cover “after-school training services” until August 22, 2018 when the State Council issued the Opinion on the Supervising After-school Tutoring Institutions, or the State Council Circular 80, which explicitly provides that after-school training institutions shall not provide training services to primary and secondary students in the form of consulting. We operate our online education services in China primarily through Dasheng Zhixing whose permitted scope of business as set forth in its business license includes educational consulting, but does not explicitly cover the provision of training services to primary and secondary students. While it remains unclear whether the State Council Circular 80 would be applied equally to both offline and online education services, due to the prohibition under the State Council Circular 80 on the provision of training services to primary and secondary students in the form of consulting, we cannot assure you that government authorities would not take a view that Dasheng Zhixing is operating beyond its permitted scope of business, in which case we may be subject to fines or confiscation of the gains derived from the non-compliant operations and may be required to cease the non-compliant operations.
The MOE, jointly with other certain PRC government authorities, promulgated the Implementation Opinions on Regulating Online After-School Training, or the Online After-School Training Opinions, which became effective on July 12, 2019. The Online After-School Training Opinions are intended to regulate academic after-school training involving internet technology provided to students in primary and secondary schools. Among other things, the Online After-School Training Opinions require that online after-school training institutions shall file with the competent provincial education regulatory authorities before October 31, 2019 and that such education regulatory authorities shall, jointly with other provincial government authorities, review such filings and the qualifications of the online after-school training institutions submitting such filings. The Online After-School Training Opinions also impose a series of new regulatory requirements, including (i) each class shall not last longer than 40 minutes and shall be taken at intervals of not less than 10 minutes; (ii) live streaming classes provided to students receiving compulsory education shall not end later than 9:00 p.m.; (iii) where fees are charged based on the number of classes, fees are not allowed to be collected in a lump sum for more than 60 class-hours, and where fees are charged based on the length of the course, the fees shall not be collected for a course length of more than three months; and (iv) instructors are required to obtain the necessary teacher qualification licenses. According to the Online After-School Training Opinions, provincial education regulatory authorities shall promulgate local implementing rules regarding the above-mentioned filing requirements.
The MOE, jointly with certain other PRC government authorities, issued the Opinions on Guiding and Regulating the Orderly and Healthy Development of Educational Mobile Internet Applications on August 10, 2019, or the Opinions on Educational Applications, which requires, among others, mobile apps that offer services for school teaching and management, student learning and student life, or home-school interactions, with school faculty, students or parents as the main users, and with education or learning as the main application scenarios, be filed with the competent provincial regulatory authorities for education before the end of 2019. The MOE expects to further promulgate implementation rules with respect to such filing requirements.
Moreover, the MOE, jointly with certain other PRC government authorities, issued the Opinions on Management of Online Class Platforms for Juveniles on November 27, 2020, which requires online class platforms for juveniles, among others, to resubmit for review and renew relevant filing with competent provincial regulatory authorities for education when launching a new application or adjusting a major function.The MOE expects to further promulgate implementation rules with respect to such requirements.
We are making efforts to comply with the Online After-School Training Opinions by, for example, making changes to our class schedule and tuition collection method and notifying our instructors of the requirement to obtain the necessary teacher qualification licenses. But still, certain aspects of our online class business may be deemed to be not in full compliance with the Online After-School Training Opinions. As of the date of this annual report, we have not received any written notice of warning from, or been subject to penalties imposed by, the relevant government authorities for alleged failure by us to comply with the Online After-School Training Opinions. We have completed the filing as required under the Online After-School Training Opinions and the Opinions on Educational Applications. Nevertheless, we cannot assure you that we will and comply with other regulatory requirements under the Online After- School Training Opinions, the Opinions on Educational Applications and their related local rules in a timely manner, or at all. If we fail to comply with other applicable regulatory requirements, we may be subject to orders to transform our operations toward compliance, fines, or other regulatory orders to suspend our operations or other regulatory and disciplinary sanctions.
In addition, it is uncertain whether and how the PRC government would promulgate additional laws and regulations regarding the online private education industry, and there is no assurance that we can comply with any such newly promulgated laws and regulations in a timely manner. Failure to regain compliance may materially and adversely affect our business, financial condition and results of operations.
We may be adversely affected by the complexity, uncertainties and changes in PRC regulation of internet-related business and companies.
The PRC government extensively regulates the internet industry, including foreign ownership of, and the licensing and permit requirements pertaining to, companies in the internet industry. These internet-related laws and regulations are relatively new and evolving, and their interpretation and enforcement involves significant uncertainties. As a result, in certain circumstances it may be difficult to determine what actions or omissions may be deemed to be in violation of applicable laws and regulations. Issues, risks and uncertainties relating to PRC governmental regulation of the internet industry include, but are not limited to, the following.
We only have control over our website through contractual arrangements. We do not own the website in China due to the restriction of foreign investment in businesses providing value-added telecommunication services in China, including internet information provision services. This may significantly disrupt our business, subject us to sanctions, compromise enforceability of related contractual arrangements, or have other harmful effects on us.
The evolving PRC regulatory system for the internet industry may lead to the establishment of new regulatory agencies. For example, in May 2011, the State Council announced the establishment of a new department, the State Internet Information Office (with the involvement of the State Council Information Office, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, or the MIIT, and the Ministry of Public Security). The primary role of this new agency is to facilitate the policy-making and legislative development in this field, to direct and coordinate with the relevant departments in connection with online content administration and to deal with cross-ministry regulatory matters in relation to the internet industry.
We are required to obtain and maintain various licenses and permits and fulfill registration and filing requirements in order to conduct and operate our business. If these new laws and regulations are promulgated, additional licenses may be required for our operations. If our operations do not comply with these new regulations at the time they become effective, or if we fail to obtain any licenses required under these new laws and regulations, we could be subject to penalties.
The Circular on Strengthening the Administration of Foreign Investment in an Operation of Value-added Telecommunications Business, issued by the MIIT in July 2006, prohibits domestic telecommunication service providers from leasing, transferring or selling telecommunications business operating licenses to any foreign investor in any form, or providing any resources, sites or facilities to any foreign investor for their illegal operation of a telecommunications business in China. According to this circular, either the holder of a value-added telecommunication services operation permit or its shareholders must directly own the domain names and trademarks used by such license holders in their provision of value-added telecommunication services. The circular also requires each license holder to have the necessary facilities, including servers, for its approved business operations and to maintain such facilities in the regions covered by its license. If an ICP license holder fails to comply with the requirements and also fails to remediate such non-compliance within a specified period of time, the MIIT or its local counterparts have the discretion to take administrative measures against such license holder, including revoking its ICP license. Currently, Dasheng Zhixing, our PRC consolidated VIE, holds an ICP license and operates our website. Dasheng Zhixing owns the relevant domain names and registered trademarks and has the necessary personnel to operate such website.
The interpretation and application of existing PRC law, regulations and policies and possible new laws, regulations or policies relating to the internet industry have created substantial uncertainties regarding the legality of existing and future foreign investments in, and the businesses and activities of, internet businesses in China, including our business. We cannot assure you that we have obtained all the permits or licenses required for conducting our business in China or will be able to maintain our existing licenses or obtain new ones.
We may be adversely affected by the complexity, uncertainties and changes in PRC regulation on After-School Tutoring
On February 13, 2018, the MOE and three other government authorities jointly promulgated the Circular on Special Enforcement Campaign concerning After-school Tutoring Institutions to Alleviate Extracurricular Burden on Students of Elementary Schools and Middle Schools, or Circular 3. Pursuant to Circular 3, the government authorities seek to alleviate after- school burden on elementary and secondary school students by carrying out a series of inspections on after-school training institutions and order those identified with potential or actual material safety risks to suspend business for self-inspection and rectification, and those without proper establishment licenses or school operating permits to apply for relevant qualifications and certificates under the guidance of competent government authorities if those after-school training institutions meet the required application conditions of the proper establishment licenses or school operating permit s. If the after-school training institutions, which does not hold the establishment licenses nor school operating permits, does not meet the required application conditions for the aforesaid licenses and permits, they will be ordered to cease the operation. If the after-school training institutions, which does not hold the school operating permits but does hold the establishment licenses, does not meet the required application conditions for the school operating permits, they will be ordered to cease to provide after-school training. For detail, see “Item 4. Information on the Company—B. Business Overview—Government Regulations—PRC Regulations—Regulations Relating to After-School Tutoring”.
On August 22, 2018, the State Council issued the Opinion on Supervising After-school Tutoring Institutions, or State Council Circular 80, with a position to encourage primary and secondary school students’ training in interests, hobbies, innovation and practice ability, and to standardize the subject-matter of traditional disciplines such that the level and degree of content taught by after-school tutoring providers in these traditional disciplines are aligned and consistent with the content being taught to the same students at school. One operating standard set out by State Council Circular 80 is that no in-service primary and secondary school teachers may be employed in an after-school tutoring institution and any teachers engaged in knowledge training of disciplines such as Chinese, mathematics, English, physics, chemistry and biology shall have corresponding teacher qualifications. Only after obtaining a school operating permit and a business license (or the certificate of public institution as legal person or the registration certificate of a non-governmental non-enterprise entity) upon registration can an after-school tutoring institution provide training service.
On November 20, 2018, the General Office of the MOE, the General Office of the State Administration for Market Regulation of the PRC and the General Office of the Ministry of Emergency Management of the PRC jointly issued the Notice on Improving the Specific Governance and Rectification Mechanisms of After-school Education Institutions (“Circular 10”), which provides that the online after-school education institutions shall file the information of their courses, such as names, contents, target students, syllabi and schedules with the provincial education departments and shall publish the name, photo, class schedule and certificate number of the teacher qualification of each teacher on their websites.
On July 12, 2019, the MOE, jointly with other certain PRC government authorities, promulgated the Implementation Opinions on Regulating Online After-School Training, or the Online After-School Training Opinions. The Online After-School Training Opinions are intended to regulate academic after-school training involving internet technology provided to students in primary and secondary schools. Among other things, the Online After-School Training Opinions requires that online after-school training institutions shall file with the competent provincial education regulatory authorities and such education regulatory authorities shall, jointly with other provincial government authorities, review such filings and the qualification of the online after-school training institutions submitting such filings.
On November 27, 2020, the MOE, jointly with certain other PRC government authorities, issued the Opinions on Management of Online Class Platforms for Juveniles, which requires online class platforms for juveniles, among others, to resubmit for review and renew relevant filing with competent provincial regulatory authorities for education when launching a new application or adjusting a major function. The MOE expects to further promulgate implementation rules with respect to such requirements.
We cannot determine whether any further interpretations, new regulations or policies, will require online training institutions to take the same self-inspection and rectification procedures required in the Circular 3, or to file or publish required information pursuant to Circular 10, or what additional expenses may arise as a result of the implementation of such directions. For detail, see “Item 4. Information on the Company—B. Business Overview—Government Regulations—PRC Regulations—Regulations Relating to After-School Tutoring”.
Failure to make adequate contributions to various employee benefit plans as required by PRC regulations may subject us to penalties.
Companies operating in China are required to participate in various government sponsored employee benefit plans, including certain social insurance, housing funds and other welfare-oriented payment obligations, and contribute to the plans in amounts equal to certain percentages of salaries, including bonuses and allowances, of employees up to a maximum amount specified by the local government from time to time at locations where they operate their businesses. The requirement of employee benefit plans has not been implemented consistently by the local governments in China given the different levels of economic development in different locations. Dasheng Zhixing, our PRC operating entity and Dasheng Online, our PRC subsidiary, have not made adequate employee benefit payments and we have recorded accruals for estimated underpaid amounts of RMB29.6 million, RMB16.1 million, and RMB5.2 million (US$0.8 million) as of December 31, 2018, 2019 and 2020, respectively, in our financial statements. Our failure in making contributions to various employee benefit plans and in complying with applicable PRC labor-related laws may subject us to late payment penalties. We may be required to make up the contributions for these plans as well as to pay late fees and fines. If we are subject to late fees or fines in relation to the underpaid employee benefits, our financial condition and results of operations may be adversely affected.
The enforcement of the PRC Labor Contract Law and other labor-related regulations in the PRC may adversely affect our business and our results of operations.
The PRC Labor Contract Law was issued on June 29, 2007, and was later amended on December 28, 2012. It has reinforced the protection of employees who, under the PRC Labor Contract Law, have the right, among others, to have written labor contracts, to enter into labor contracts with no fixed terms under certain circumstances, to receive overtime wages and to terminate or alter terms in labor contracts. According to the PRC Social Insurance Law, which became effective on July 1, 2011 and was amended on December 29, 2018, and the Administrative Regulations on the Housing Funds, Companies operating in China are required to participate in pension insurance, work-related injury insurance, medical insurance, unemployment insurance, maternity insurance and housing funds plans, and the employers must pay all or a portion of the social insurance premiums and housing funds for their employees.
As a result of these laws and regulations designed to enhance labor protection, we expect our labor costs will continue to increase. In addition, as the interpretation and implementation of these laws and regulations are still evolving, our employment practice may not at all times be deemed in compliance with the new laws and regulations. If we are subject to severe penalties or incur significant liabilities in connection with labor disputes or investigations, our business and results of operations may be adversely affected.
Regulation and censorship of information disseminated over the internet in China may adversely affect our business and reputation and subject us to liability for information displayed on our website.
The PRC government has adopted regulations governing internet access and the distribution of news and other information over the internet. Under these regulations, internet content providers and internet publishers are prohibited from posting or displaying over the internet content that, among other things, violates PRC laws and regulations, impairs the national dignity of China, or is reactionary, obscene, superstitious, fraudulent or defamatory. Failure to comply with these requirements may result in the revocation of licenses to provide internet content and other licenses, and the closure of the concerned websites. The website operator may also be held liable for such censored information displayed on or linked to the websites. If our website is found to be in violation of any such requirements, we may be penalized by relevant authorities, and our operations or reputation could be adversely affected.
The operation of our PRC consolidated VIEs may be deemed by relevant PRC government authority to be beyond its authorized business scope. If the relevant PRC government authorities take actions against any of our PRC consolidated VIEs, our business and operations could be materially and adversely affected.
The principal regulations governing private education in China consist of the Education Law of the PRC, the Law for Promoting Private Education, or Private Education Law, and the Implementation Rules for the Law for Promoting Private Education. Under these currently effective PRC laws and regulations, private education is deemed a public welfare undertaking in China. According to the Private Education Law, establishment of private schools for academic education, pre-school education, self-taught examination support and other cultural education shall be subject to approval by the authorities in charge of education, while establishment of private schools for vocational qualification training and vocational skill training shall be subject to approvals from the authorities in charge of labor and social welfare. A duly approved private school will be granted a private school operating permit, and shall be registered as a legal person at the competent registration authorities. Sponsors of private schools may set up, at their sole discretion, non-profit or commercial private schools. Nonetheless, sponsors may not establish commercial private schools providing compulsory education. Pursuant to the Implementation Rules for the Classification Registration of Private Schools jointly issued by the Ministry of Education, or the MOE, and several other government authorities on December 30, 2016, a commercial private school shall first obtain a private school operating permit prior to its registration with the SAMR or its local counterparts. Pursuant to the Implementation Rules for the Supervision and Administration of Commercial Private Schools jointly issues by the MOE, the SAIC and Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security on December 30, 2016, commercial private training institutions shall also be treated by reference to the requirements applicable to commercial private schools.
We operate an online platform that provides online tutoring programs to students through the internet, and all of our PRC subsidiaries and our PRC consolidated VIEs are registered with Beijing AIC as commercial enterprises. On December 29, 2017, the People’s Government of Shanghai promulgated the Administration Measures of Shanghai Municipality on the Commercial Private Training Institutions, pursuant to which establishment of commercial private schools for cultural education or vocational skills training are required to obtain a private school operating permit, while the administration measures applicable to the institutions offering training service only via internet shall be formulated separately. On January 2, 2018, Beijing Municipal Education Commission promulgated Several Opinions on Strengthening the Administration of Private Non-degree Education Institutions in Beijing, where Dasheng Zhixing and Dasheng Helloworld are incorporated, providing that private training institutions carrying out non-academic qualifications education without obtaining required school operating permit shall be handled in accordance with the Private Education Law. The local government of Wuhan, where Houdezaiwu Online is incorporated, promulgated the Interim Measures of Wuhan for the Administration Private Training Institutions on February 6, 2018, which stipulates that the approval from the comprehensive administrative authority shall be obtained before the establishment of the private training institutions for cultural and educational training. Furthermore, the MOE, jointly with other certain PRC government authorities, promulgated the Implementation Opinions on Regulating Online After-School Training, or the Online After-School Training Opinions, which became effective on July 12, 2019. It requires online after-school institutions to complete filing. As of December 31, 2019, education regulatory authorities in 13 provinces including Shanghai, Beijing and Guangdong jointly with other authorities promulgated plans or detailed rules of regulating online after-school training institutions or exposure draft of implementation rules of online training institutions to further implement the supervision of online after-school training. As of the date of this annual report, we have completed the filing required and have not received any notice of warning or been subject to penalties or other disciplinary action from the relevant governmental authorities regarding the conducting of our business beyond authorized business scope or without any approvals and permits. However, we cannot assure you that we will not be subject to any penalties in the future. If the relevant PRC government authorities discover or determine that any of our PRC consolidated VIEs operates beyond its authorized business scope, our PRC consolidated VIEs may be ordered to complete the registration for change of business scope within a given period, failing which any of our PRC consolidated VIEs is subject to a one-time fine of RMB10,000 to RMB100,000, or may be ordered to cease its operation if the relevant authorities determine that any of our PRC consolidated VIEs is operating without any approval or permit required. If we fail to obtain a private school operating permit or to complete the filing required after the local rules or guidelines on registration of pure online commercial training institutions have been promulgated in provinces or cities where our PRC Entities is incorporated, we may be prohibited from continuing operating our current business until we obtain the required permit.
We face risks and uncertainties with respect to the licensing requirement for Internet audio-video programs.
On December 20, 2007, the State Administration of Press Publication Radio Film and Television, or SAPPRFT, and the MIIT, jointly promulgated the Administrative Measures Regarding Internet Audio-Video Program Services, or the Internet Audio-Video Program Measures, which became effective on January 31, 2008 and were amended on August 28, 2015. Among other things, the Internet Audio-Video Program Measures stipulate that no entities or individuals may provide Internet audio-video program services without a License for Online Transmission of Audio-Visual Programs issued by SAPPRFT or its local bureaus or completing the relevant registration with SAPPRFT or its local bureaus, and only state-owned or state-controlled entities are eligible to apply for a License for Online Transmission of Audio-Visual Programs. In a press conference jointly held by the SAPPRFT and MIIT in February 2008 to answer questions relating to the Internet Audio-Video Program Measures, the SAPPRFT and MIIT clarified that those providers of internet audio-visual program services who engaged in such services prior to the promulgation of the Internet Audio-Video Program Measure may re-register and continue their operation of internet audio-visual program services so long as those providers did not violate the relevant laws and regulations in the past, regardless whether they are state-owned or state-controlled entities or not, but any other entities intend to provide internet audio-visual program services shall comply with all requirements specified in the Internet Audio-Video Program Measures. The Tentative Categories of Internet Audio-Visual Program Services, or the Categories, promulgated by SAPPRFT promulgated on April 1, 2010 and amended on March 10, 2017 clarified the scope of Internet audio-video programs services. According to the Categories, there are four categories of Internet audio-visual program services which are further divided into seventeen sub-categories. The third sub-category to the second category covers the making and editing of certain specialized audio-video programs concerning, among other things, educational content, and broadcasting such content to the general public online. However, there are still significant uncertainties relating to the interpretation and implementation of the Internet Audio-Video Program Measures, in particular, the scope of “internet audio-video programs.” We do not offer recorded audio-video lectures to either general public or our enrolled students. In the course of delivering the lessons, the foreign teachers and enrolled students communicate and interact live with each other, by utilizing our Air Class platform. The audio and video data are transmitted through the relevant platform between the specific recipients instantly without any further redaction. We believe the limited scope of our audience and the nature of the raw data we transmit distinguishes us from general providers of internet audio-visual program services, such as the operator of online video websites, and the provision of the Audio-Visual Program Provisions are not applicable with regard to our offering of the lessons. However, we cannot assure you that the competent PRC government authorities will not ultimately take a view contrary to our opinion. In addition, as supplementary course materials, we offer certain audio-video contents on our websites and mobile apps for the review of all registered members. If the governmental authorities determine that our relevant activities fall within the definition of “internet audio-video program service” under the Audio-Visual Program Provisions, we may be required to obtain the License for Disseminating Audio-Video Programs through Information Network. If this occurs, we may not be able to obtain such license and we may become subject to penalties, fines, legal sanctions or an order to suspend our use of audio-video content. On March 7, 2016, Dasheng Zhixing received a Decision on Administrative Penalty issued by the Beijing Cultural Market Administrative Law Enforcement Agency, according to which Dasheng Zhixing has been given a warning and a penalty of RMB5,000 for posting video clips on our website without required licenses. We have taken various corrective measures as required by the authorities, such as deleting the video clips in question, blocking video upload function in our online forum, and engaging a qualified third party to host certain of the video clips we use on our websites. However, we cannot assure you the corrective measures we have taken will be deemed adequate by the authorities and we will not be subject to any other penalties or legal sanctions in the future for our use of audio or video contents on our websites.
We are required to obtain various operating licenses and permits and to make registrations and filings for our business operations in China; failure to comply with these requirements may materially adversely affect our business and results of operations.
The internet industry in China is highly regulated by the PRC government. See “Item 4. Information on the Company—B. Business Overview—Government Regulations—PRC Regulations.” We are required to obtain and maintain various licenses and permits and fulfill registration and filing requirements in order to conduct and operate our business currently carried out, and we may be required to obtained additional licenses or permits for our operations as the interpretation and implementation of current PRC laws and regulations are still evolving, and new laws and regulations may also be promulgated. We currently, through our PRC variable interest entity, Dasheng Zhixing, hold an ICP license for our four websites, which is valid through August 19, 2021 and is subject to annual review. We, however, may be required to obtain additional licenses or expand the authorized business scope covered under the licenses it currently holds. For example, the contents we use on our websites or mobile apps, including the course materials and video-audio contents we licensed from third parties, may be deemed “Internet cultural products”, and our use of those contents may be regarded as “Internet cultural activities”, thus we may be required to obtain an Internet Culture Business Operating License for provision of those contents through our online platform as currently there is no further official or publicly-available interpretation of those definitions. We currently hold an Internet Culture Business Operating License that is valid until April 21, 2022 and such license allows us to operate animation products through the internet. We may be required to expand the scope of our license if the authorities take the view that the contents on our websites constitute other categories of “internet cultural products.” We currently hold a Publication Business Operating License that is valid until April 30, 2022 and such license allows us to sell books, newspapers, periodicals, audio-video products, and electronic publications, both offline and online. In addition, our providing content through our online platform may be regarded as “online publishing” and may thus subject us to the requirement of obtaining an Online Publishing License. If we fail to obtain or maintain any of the required licenses or approvals, its continued business operations in the Internet industry may subject it to various penalties, such as confiscation of illegal revenues, fines and the discontinuation or restriction of its operations. Any such disruption in the business operations of our affiliated entities will materially and adversely affect our business, financial condition and results of operations.
Changes in China’s economic, political or social conditions or government policies could have a material adverse effect on our business and operations.
A significant portion of our business operations is conducted in China and all of our sales are made in China. Accordingly, our business, financial condition, results of operations and prospects may be influenced to a significant degree by political, economic and social conditions in China generally and by continued economic growth in China as a whole.
China’s economy differs from the economies of most developed countries in many respects, including the level of government involvement, level of development, growth rate, control of foreign exchange and allocation of resources. Although the PRC government has implemented measures emphasizing the utilization of market forces for economic reform, the reduction of state ownership of productive assets, and the establishment of improved corporate governance in business enterprises, a substantial portion of productive assets in China is still owned by the PRC government. In addition, the PRC government continues to play a significant role in regulating industry development by imposing industrial policies. The PRC government also exercises significant control over the PRC economy through allocating resources, controlling payment of foreign currency-denominated obligations, setting monetary policy, and providing preferential treatment to particular industries or companies.
While China’s economy has experienced significant growth over the past decades, growth has been uneven, both geographically and among various sectors of the economy, and the rate of growth has been slowing. Some of the governmental measures may benefit the overall Chinese economy, but may have a negative effect on us. For example, our financial condition and results of operations may be adversely affected by government control over capital investments or changes in tax regulations. Any stimulus measures designed to boost the Chinese economy may contribute to higher inflation, which could adversely affect our results of operations and financial condition. For example, certain operating costs and expenses, such as employee compensation and office operating expenses, may increase as a result of higher inflation.
A severe or prolonged downturn in the global or PRC economy could materially and adversely affect our business and our financial condition.
The global macroeconomic environment is facing numerous challenges. The growth rate of the Chinese economy has gradually slowed since 2010 and the trend may continue. There is considerable uncertainty over the long-term effects of the expansionary monetary and fiscal policies adopted by the central banks and financial authorities of some of the world’s leading economies, including the United States and China. Unrest, terrorist threats and the potential for war in the Middle East and elsewhere may increase market volatility across the globe. There have also been concerns about the relationship between China and other countries, including the surrounding Asia countries, which may potentially have economic effects. In particular, there is significant uncertainty about the future relationship between the United States and China with respect to trade policies, treaties, government regulations and tariffs. Economic conditions in China are sensitive to global economic conditions, as well as changes in domestic economic and political policies and the expected or perceived overall economic growth rate in China. Any severe or prolonged slowdown in the global or PRC economy may materially and adversely affect our business, results of operations and financial condition. In addition, continued turbulence in the international markets may adversely affect our ability to access capital markets to meet liquidity needs.
PRC regulations relating to foreign exchange registration of overseas investment by PRC residents may subject our PRC resident beneficial owners or our PRC subsidiaries to liability or penalties, limit our ability to inject capital into these subsidiaries, limit PRC subsidiaries’ ability to increase their registered capital or distribute profits to us, or may otherwise adversely affect us.
On July 4, 2014, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, or SAFE, promulgated the Circular on Relevant Issues Relating to Domestic Resident’s Investment and Financing and Roundtrip Investment through Special Purpose Vehicles, or SAFE Circular 37, which replaced the former Notice on Relevant Issues Concerning Foreign Exchange Administration for PRC Residents to Engage in Financing and Inbound Investment via Overseas Special Purpose Vehicles (generally known as SAFE Circular 75) promulgated by SAFE on October 21, 2005. On February 13, 2015, SAFE further promulgated the Circular on Further Simplifying and Improving the Administration of the Foreign Exchange Concerning Direct Investment, or SAFE Circular 13, which took effect on June 1, 2015. This SAFE Circular 13 has amended SAFE Circular 37 by requiring PRC residents or entities to register with qualified banks rather than SAFE or its local branch in connection with their establishment or control of an offshore entity established for the purpose of overseas investment or financing.
These circulars require PRC residents to register with qualified banks in connection with their direct establishment or indirect control of an offshore entity, for the purpose of overseas investment and financing, with such PRC residents’ legally owned assets or equity interests in domestic enterprises or offshore assets or interests, which is referred to in SAFE Circular 37 as a “special purpose vehicle.” These circulars further require amendment to the registration in the event of any significant changes with respect to the special purpose vehicle, such as an increase or decrease of capital contributed by PRC residents, share transfer or exchange, merger, division or other material events. In the event that a PRC resident holding interests in a special purpose vehicle fails to complete the required SAFE registration, the PRC subsidiaries of that special purpose vehicle may be prohibited from making profit distributions to the offshore parent and from carrying out subsequent cross-border foreign exchange activities, and the special purpose vehicle may be restricted in its ability to contribute additional capital into its PRC subsidiaries. Furthermore, failure to comply with the various SAFE registration requirements described above could result in liability under PRC law for evasion of foreign exchange controls.
We cannot assure you that all of our shareholders or beneficial owners who are PRC residents will at all times comply with, or in the future make or obtain any applicable registrations or approvals required by all relevant foreign exchange regulations. Mr. Jack Jiajia Huang and Ms. Ting Shu, who directly or indirectly hold shares in our Cayman Islands holding company and who are known to us as being PRC residents have completed the initial foreign exchange registrations, amended their registrations to reflect our corporate restructuring in November 2014. In addition, we may not at all times be fully aware or informed of the identities of all our shareholders or beneficial owners that are required to make such registrations, and we may not be able to compel them to comply with all relevant foreign exchange regulations. The failure or inability of such individuals to comply with the registration procedures set forth in these regulations may subject us to fines or legal sanctions, restrictions on our cross-border investment activities or our PRC subsidiaries’ ability to distribute dividends to, or obtain foreign-exchange-dominated loans from, our company, or prevent us from making distributions or paying dividends. As a result, our business operations and our ability to make distributions to you could be materially and adversely affected.
Furthermore, as these foreign exchange regulations are still relatively new and their interpretation and implementation has been constantly evolving, it is unclear how these regulations, and any future regulation concerning offshore or cross-border transactions, will be interpreted, amended and implemented by the relevant government authorities. We cannot predict how these regulations will affect our business operations or future strategy. In addition, if we decide to acquire a PRC domestic company, we cannot assure you that we or the owners of such company, as the case may be, will be able to obtain the necessary approvals or complete the necessary filings and registrations required by the foreign exchange regulations. This may restrict our ability to implement our acquisition strategy and could adversely affect our business and prospects.
PRC regulation on loans to, and direct investment in, PRC entities by offshore holding companies and governmental control in currency conversion may delay or prevent us from using the proceeds of our equity offerings to make loans to our PRC subsidiaries and PRC consolidated VIEs or make additional capital contributions to our PRC subsidiaries, which could materially and adversely affect our liquidity and our ability to fund and expand our business.
We are an offshore holding company conducting our operations in China through our PRC subsidiaries, Dasheng Online and Helloworld Online. We may make loans to our PRC subsidiaries and PRC consolidated VIEs subject to the approval from governmental authorities and limitation of amount, or we may make additional capital contributions to our PRC subsidiaries.
Any loans to our PRC subsidiaries, which are treated as a foreign-invested enterprise under PRC law, are subject to PRC regulations and foreign exchange loan registrations. For example, loans by us to our PRC subsidiaries to finance their activities cannot exceed statutory limits and must be registered with the local branch of the SAFE. The statutory limit for the total amount of foreign debts of a foreign-invested company is the difference between the amount of total investment as approved by or filed with, as the case may be, the MOFCOM or its local counterpart and the amount of registered capital of such foreign-invested company. See “Item 4. Information on the Company—B. Business Overview—Government Regulations—PRC Regulations—Regulations Relating to Foreign Investment.” There is no difference between the total amount of investment and the registered capital for Dasheng Online. The difference between the total amount of investment and the registered capital for Helloworld Online is approximately USD 15 million. We may also decide to finance our PRC subsidiaries by means of capital contributions. Our capital contributions to our PRC subsidiaries Dasheng Online and Helloworld Online, Foreign-Invested Enterprises, or FIEs that we believe do not fall within the scope of special administration measures for foreign investment admission, must be filed with the MOFCOM or its local counterpart. See “Item 4. Information on the Company—B. Business Overview—Government Regulations—PRC Regulations—Regulations Relating to Foreign Investment.” We cannot assure you that we will be able to complete the necessary registration on a timely basis, or at all. If we fail to complete the necessary registration, our ability to make loans or equity contributions to our PRC subsidiaries may be negatively affected, which could adversely affect our PRC subsidiaries’ liquidity and its ability to fund its working capital and expansion projects and meet its obligations and commitments.
On August 29, 2008, SAFE promulgated the Circular on the Relevant Operating Issues Concerning the Improvement of the Administration of the Payment and Settlement of Foreign Currency Capital of Foreign-Invested Enterprises, or SAFE Circular 142, regulating the conversion by a foreign-invested enterprise of foreign currency registered capital into RMB by restricting how the converted RMB may be used. SAFE Circular 142 provides that the RMB capital converted from foreign currency registered capital of a foreign-invested enterprise may only be used for purposes within the business scope approved by the applicable governmental authority and may not be used for equity investments within the PRC unless otherwise provided by law. In addition, SAFE strengthened its oversight of the flow and use of the RMB capital converted from foreign currency registered capital of a foreign-invested company. The use of such RMB capital may not be altered without SAFE approval, and such RMB capital may not in any case be used to repay RMB loans if the proceeds of such loans have not been used. Violations of SAFE Circular 142 could result in severe monetary or other penalties. On July 4, 2014, SAFE issued the Circular of the SAFE on Relevant Issues Concerning the Pilot Reform in Certain Areas of the Administrative Method of the Conversion of Foreign Exchange Funds by Foreign-invested Enterprises, or SAFE Circular 36, which launched the pilot reform of administration regarding conversion of foreign currency registered capitals of foreign-invested enterprises in 16 pilot areas. According to SAFE Circular 36, some of the restrictions under SAFE Circular 142 will not apply to the settlement of the foreign exchange capitals of an ordinary foreign-invested enterprise in the pilot areas, and such foreign-invested enterprise is permitted to use Renminbi converted from its foreign-currency registered capital to make equity investments in the PRC within and in accordance with the authorized business scope of such foreign-invested enterprises, subject to certain registration and settlement procedure as set forth in SAFE Circular 36. On March 30, 2015, SAFE promulgated Circular on Reforming the Management Approach regarding the Settlement of Foreign Exchange Capital of Foreign-invested Enterprises, or SAFE Circular 19, to expand the reform nationwide. SAFE Circular 19 came into force and replaced both SAFE Circular 142 and SAFE Circular 36 on June 1, 2015. However, SAFE Circular 19 continues to prohibit a foreign-invested enterprise from, among other things, using RMB funds converted from its foreign exchange capitals for expenditure beyond its authorized business scope, providing entrusted loans or repaying loans between non-financial enterprises. On June 9, 2016, SAFE promulgated Circular on Reforming and Regulating the Management Policy regarding the Settlement of Foreign Exchange Capital of Capital Accounts, or SAFE Circular 16, which took effect on the same date. Compared to SAFE Circular 19, SAFE Circular 16 not only provides that, in addition to foreign exchange capital, foreign debt funds and proceeds remitted from foreign listings should also be subject to the discretional foreign exchange settlement, but also lifted the restriction, that foreign exchange capital under the capital accounts and the corresponding Renminbi capital obtained from foreign exchange settlement should not be used for repaying the inter-enterprise borrowings (including advances by the third party) or repaying the bank loans in Renminbi that have been sub-lent to the third party. The provisions prohibiting against a foreign-invested enterprise using RMB funds converted from its foreign exchange capitals for expenditure beyond its authorized business scope, however, survive SAFE Circular 16. Violations of these circulars could result in severe monetary or other penalties. These circulars may significantly limit our ability to use RMB converted from the net proceeds of our equity offerings to fund the establishment of new entities in China by our PRC subsidiaries, to invest in or acquire any other PRC companies through our PRC subsidiaries, or to establish new consolidated VIEs in the PRC.
In light of the various requirements imposed by PRC regulations on loans to, and direct investment in, PRC entities by offshore holding companies, we cannot assure you that we will be able to complete the necessary government registrations or obtain the necessary government approvals on a timely basis, if at all, with respect to future loans by us to our PRC subsidiaries or PRC consolidated VIEs or with respect to future capital contributions by us to our PRC subsidiaries. If we fail to complete such registrations or obtain such approvals, our ability to use the proceeds from our equity offerings and to capitalize or otherwise fund our PRC operations may be negatively affected, which could materially and adversely affect our liquidity and our ability to fund and expand our business.
Under the PRC Enterprise Income Tax Law, we may be classified as a PRC “resident enterprise” for PRC enterprise income tax purposes. Such classification would likely result in unfavorable tax consequences to us and our non-PRC shareholders and has a material adverse effect on our results of operations and the value of your investment.
Under the PRC Enterprise Income Tax Law, or the EIT Law, that became effective in January, 2008 and was amended on February 24, 2017 and December 29, 2018, an enterprise established outside the PRC with “de facto management bodies” within the PRC is considered a “resident enterprise” for PRC enterprise income tax purposes and is generally subject to a uniform 25% enterprise income tax rate on its worldwide income. Under the implementation rules to the EIT Law, a “de facto management body” is defined as a body that has material and overall management and control over the manufacturing and business operations, personnel and human resources, finances and properties of an enterprise. In addition, a circular, known as SAT Circular 82, issued in April 2009 by the State Administration of Taxation, or the SAT, specifies that certain offshore incorporated enterprises controlled by PRC enterprises or PRC enterprise groups will be classified as PRC resident enterprises if the following are located or resident in the PRC: senior management personnel and departments that are responsible for daily production, operation and management; financial and personnel decision making bodies; key properties, accounting books, company seal, and minutes of board meetings and shareholders’ meetings; and half or more of the senior management or directors having voting rights. Further to SAT Circular 82, the SAT issued a bulletin, known as SAT Bulletin 45, which took effect in September 2011, to provide more guidance on the implementation of SAT Circular 82 and clarify the reporting and filing obligations of such “Chinese-controlled offshore incorporated resident enterprises.” SAT Bulletin 45 provides procedures and administrative details for the determination of resident status and administration on post-determination matters. Although both SAT Circular 82 and SAT Bulletin 45 only apply to offshore enterprises controlled by PRC enterprises or PRC enterprise groups, not those controlled by PRC individuals or foreign individuals, the determining criteria set forth in SAT Circular 82 and SAT Bulletin 45 may reflect the SAT’s general position on how the “de facto management body” test should be applied in determining the tax resident status of offshore enterprises, regardless of whether they are controlled by PRC enterprises, PRC enterprise groups or by PRC or foreign individuals.
We do not believe that COE meets all of the conditions above. Thus, we do not believe that COE is a PRC resident enterprise, though a substantial majority of the members of our management team as well as the management team of our offshore holding company are located in China. However, if the PRC tax authorities determine that COE is a PRC resident enterprise for PRC enterprise income tax purposes, a number of unfavorable PRC tax consequences could follow. First, we will be subject to the uniform 25% enterprise income tax on our world-wide income, which could materially reduce our net income. In addition, we will also be subject to PRC enterprise income tax reporting obligations.
Finally, dividends payable by us to our investors and gains on the sale of our shares may become subject to PRC withholding tax, at a rate of 10% in the case of non-PRC enterprises or 20% in the case of non-PRC individuals (in each case, subject to the provisions of any applicable tax treaty), if such gains are deemed to be from PRC sources. It is unclear whether non-PRC shareholders of our company would be able to claim the benefits of any tax treaties between their country of tax residence and the PRC in the event that we are treated as a PRC resident enterprise. Any such tax may reduce the returns on your investment in the ADSs.
Enhanced scrutiny over acquisition transactions by the PRC tax authorities may have a negative impact on potential acquisitions we may pursue in the future.
On February 3, 2015, the SAT issued the Announcement of the State Administration of Taxation on Several Issues Concerning the Enterprise Income Tax on Indirect Property Transfer by Non-Resident Enterprises, or SAT Bulletin 7. Pursuant to SAT Bulletin 7, where a non-resident enterprise indirectly transfers properties such as equity in PRC resident enterprises without any justifiable business purposes and aiming to avoid the payment of enterprise income tax, such indirect transfer must be reclassified as a direct transfer of equity in PRC resident enterprise. To assess whether an indirect transfer of PRC taxable properties has reasonable commercial purposes, all arrangements related to the indirect transfer must be considered comprehensively and factors set forth in SAT Bulletin 7 must be comprehensively analyzed in light of the actual circumstances. SAT Bulletin 7 also provides that, where a non-PRC resident enterprise transfers its equity interests in a resident enterprise to its related parties at a price lower than the fair market value, the competent tax authority has the power to make a reasonable adjustment to the taxable income of the transaction.
There is little practical experience regarding the application of SAT Bulletin 7 because it was issued in February 2015. However, the PRC tax authorities have already looked through some intermediary holding companies, and consequently the non-PRC resident investors were deemed to have transferred the equity interests in PRC subsidiaries and PRC corporate taxes were assessed accordingly. It is possible that we or our non-PRC resident investors may become at risk of being taxed under SAT Bulletin 7 and may be required to expend valuable resources to comply with SAT Bulletin 7 or to establish that we or our non-PRC resident investors should not be taxed under SAT Bulletin 7, which may have an adverse effect on our financial condition and results of operations or such non-PRC resident investors’ investment in us.
Failure to comply with PRC regulations regarding the registration requirements for employee share ownership plans or share option plans may subject the PRC plan participants or us to fines and other legal or administrative sanctions.
In February 2012, SAFE promulgated the Notices on Issues Concerning the Foreign Exchange Administration for Domestic Individuals Participating in Stock Incentive Plans of Overseas Publicly-Listed Companies, or SAFE Circular 7, replacing the previous rules issued by SAFE in March 2007. Under the SAFE Circular 7 and other relevant rules and regulations, PRC residents who participate in a stock incentive plan in an overseas publicly-listed company are required to register with SAFE or its local branches and complete certain other procedures. Participants of a stock incentive plan who are PRC residents must retain a qualified PRC agent, which could be a PRC subsidiaries of the overseas publicly listed company or another qualified institution selected by the PRC subsidiaries, to conduct the SAFE registration and other procedures with respect to the stock incentive plan on behalf of its participants. The participants must also retain an overseas entrusted institution to handle matters in connection with their exercise of stock options, the purchase and sale of corresponding stocks or interests and fund transfers. In addition, the PRC agent is required to amend the SAFE registration with respect to the stock incentive plan if there is any material change to the stock incentive plan, the PRC agent or the overseas entrusted institution or other material changes. See “Item 4. Information on the Company—B. Business Overview—Government Regulations—PRC Regulations—Regulations on Stock Incentive Plans.” We and our PRC employees who have been granted share options and restricted shares are currently subject to these regulations. Failure of our PRC share option holders or restricted shareholders to complete their SAFE registrations may subject these PRC residents to fines and legal sanctions and may also limit our ability to contribute additional capital into our PRC subsidiaries, limit our PRC subsidiaries’ ability to distribute dividends to us, or otherwise materially adversely affect our business.
Our PRC subsidiaries are subject to restrictions on paying dividends or making other payments to us, which may restrict our ability to satisfy our liquidity requirements.
We are a holding company incorporated in the Cayman Islands. We may need dividends and other distributions on equity from our PRC subsidiaries to satisfy our liquidity requirements. Current PRC regulations permit our PRC subsidiaries to pay dividends to us only out of their accumulated profits, if any, determined in accordance with PRC accounting standards and regulations. In addition, our PRC subsidiaries are required to set aside at least 10% of their respective accumulated profits each year, if any, to fund certain reserve funds until the total amount set aside reaches 50% of their respective registered capital. Our PRC subsidiaries may also allocate a portion of its after-tax profits based on PRC accounting standards to employee welfare and bonus funds at their discretion. These reserves are not distributable as cash dividends. Furthermore, if our PRC subsidiaries incur debt on their own behalf in the future, the instruments governing the debt may restrict their ability to pay dividends or make other payments to us. In addition, the PRC tax authorities may require us to adjust our taxable income under the contractual arrangements we currently have in place in a manner that would materially and adversely affect our PRC subsidiaries’ ability to pay dividends and other distributions to us. Any limitation on the ability of our subsidiaries to distribute dividends to us or on the ability of our PRC consolidated VIE to make payments to us may restrict our ability to satisfy our liquidity requirements.
In addition, the EIT Law, and its implementation rules provide that a withholding tax rate of up to 10% will be applicable to dividends payable by Chinese companies to non-PRC-resident enterprises unless otherwise exempted or reduced according to treaties or arrangements between the PRC central government and governments of other countries or regions where the non-PRC-resident enterprises are incorporated.
Governmental control of currency conversion may affect the value of your investment.
The PRC government imposes controls on the convertibility of the RMB into foreign currencies and, in certain cases, the remittance of currency out of China. We receive substantially all of our revenues in RMB. Under our current corporate structure, our company in the Cayman Islands may rely on dividend payments from our PRC subsidiaries to fund any cash and financing requirements we may have. Under existing PRC foreign exchange regulations, payments of current account items, such as profit distributions and trade and service-related foreign exchange transactions, can be made in foreign currencies without prior approval from SAFE by complying with certain procedural requirements. Therefore, our PRC subsidiaries in China are able to pay dividends in foreign currencies to us without prior approval from SAFE, subject to the condition that the remittance of such dividends outside of the PRC complies with certain procedures under PRC foreign exchange regulation, such as the overseas investment registrations by our shareholders or the ultimate shareholders of our corporate shareholders who are PRC residents. But approval from or registration with appropriate government authorities is required where RMB is to be converted into foreign currency and remitted out of China to pay capital expenses such as the repayment of loans denominated in foreign currencies. The PRC government may also at its discretion restrict access in the future to foreign currencies for current account transactions. If the foreign exchange control system prevents us from obtaining sufficient foreign currencies to satisfy our foreign currency demands, we may not be able to pay dividends in foreign currencies to our shareholders, including holders of our ADSs.
The M&A Rules and certain other PRC regulations establish complex procedures for some acquisitions of Chinese companies by foreign investors, which could make it more difficult for us to pursue growth through acquisitions in China.
The Regulations on Mergers and Acquisitions of Domestic Companies by Foreign Investors, or the M&A Rules, adopted by six PRC regulatory agencies in 2006 and amended in 2009, requires an overseas special purpose vehicle formed for listing purposes through acquisitions of PRC domestic companies and controlled by PRC companies or individuals to obtain the approval of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, or the CSRC, prior to the listing and trading of such special purpose vehicle’s securities on an overseas stock exchange. In September 2006, the CSRC published a notice on its official website specifying documents and materials required to be submitted to it by a special purpose vehicle seeking CSRC approval of its overseas listings. The application of the M&A Rules remains unclear. Currently, there is no consensus among leading PRC law firms regarding the scope and applicability of the CSRC approval requirement.
The M&A Rules discussed in the preceding paragraph and recently adopted regulations and rules concerning mergers and acquisitions established additional procedures and requirements that could make merger and acquisition activities by foreign investors more time consuming and complex. For example, the M&A Rules require that the MOFCOM be notified in advance of any change-of-control transaction in which a foreign investor takes control of a PRC domestic enterprise, if (i) any important industry is concerned, (ii) such transaction involves factors that have or may have impact on the national economic security, or (iii) such transaction will lead to a change in control of a domestic enterprise which holds a famous trademark or PRC time-honored brand. Mergers, acquisitions or contractual arrangements that allow one market player to take control of or to exert decisive impact on another market player must also be notified in advance to the MOFCOM when the threshold under the Provisions on Thresholds for Prior Notification of Concentrations of Undertakings, or the Prior Notification Rules, issued by the State Council in August 2008 is triggered. In addition, the security review rules issued by the MOFCOM that became effective in September 2011 specify that mergers and acquisitions by foreign investors that raise “national defense and security” concerns and mergers and acquisitions through which foreign investors may acquire de facto control over domestic enterprises that raise “national security” concerns are subject to strict review by the MOFCOM, and the rules prohibit any activities attempting to bypass a security review, including by structuring the transaction through a proxy or contractual control arrangement. In the future, we may grow our business by acquiring complementary businesses. Complying with the requirements of the above-mentioned regulations and other relevant rules to complete such transactions could be time consuming, and any required approval processes, including obtaining approval from the MOFCOM or its local counterparts may delay or inhibit our ability to complete such transactions. It is unclear whether our business would be deemed to be in an industry that raises “national defense and security” or “national security” concerns. However, the MOFCOM or other government agencies may publish explanations in the future determining that our business is in an industry subject to the security review, in which case our future acquisitions in the PRC, including those by way of entering into contractual control arrangements with target entities, may be closely scrutinized or prohibited. Our ability to expand our business or maintain or expand our market share through future acquisitions would as such be materially and adversely affected.
Fluctuations in exchange rates could have a material and adverse effect on our results of operations and the value of your investment.
The conversion of Renminbi into foreign currencies, including U.S. dollars, is based on rates set by the People’s Bank of China. The Renminbi has fluctuated against the U.S. dollar, at times significantly and unpredictably. The value of the Renminbi against the U.S. dollar and other currencies may fluctuate and is affected by, among other things, changes in political and economic conditions in China and by China’s foreign exchange policies. We cannot assure you that the Renminbi will not appreciate or depreciate significantly in value against the U.S. dollar in the future. It is difficult to predict how market forces or PRC or U.S. government policy may impact the exchange rate between the Renminbi and the U.S. dollar in the future.
Any significant appreciation or depreciation of Renminbi may have a material and adverse effect on the value of, and any dividends payable on, our ADSs in U.S. dollars and your investment. For example, to the extent that we need to convert U.S. dollars into Renminbi for capital expenditures and working capital and other business purpose, appreciation of the Renminbi against the U.S. dollar would have an adverse effect on the Renminbi amount we would receive from the conversion. Conversely, if we decide to convert our Renminbi into U.S. dollars for the purpose of making payments for dividends on our ordinary shares or ADSs or for other business purposes, appreciation of the U.S. dollar against the Renminbi would have a negative effect on the U.S. dollar amount available to us. In addition, appreciation or depreciation in the value of the RMB relative to U.S. dollars would affect the U.S. dollar equivalent of our earnings, regardless of any underlying change in our business or results of operations.
Very limited hedging options are available in China to reduce our exposure to exchange rate fluctuations. To date, we have not entered into any hedging transactions in an effort to reduce our exposure to foreign currency exchange risk. While we may decide to enter into hedging transactions in the future, the availability and effectiveness of these hedges may be limited and we may not be able to adequately hedge our exposure or at all. In addition, our currency exchange losses may be magnified by PRC exchange control regulations that restrict our ability to convert Renminbi into foreign currency. As a result, fluctuations in exchange rates may have a material adverse effect on your investment.
Risks Related to Our ADSs
The trading prices of our ADSs have fluctuated and may be volatile, which could result in substantial losses to investors.
The trading prices of our ADSs have fluctuated since we first listed our ADSs. In 2020, the trading price of our ADSs has ranged from US$9.50 to US$37.19 per ADS. The market price and trading volume for our ADSs may continue to be volatile and subject to wide fluctuations in response to factors including, but not limited to, the following:
|●||the financial projections that we may choose to provide to the public, any changes in those projections or our failure for any reason to meet those projections;|
|●||variations in our net revenues, net loss/income and cash flow;|
|●||changes in the economic performance or market valuation of other education companies;|
|●||announcements of new investments, acquisitions by us or our competitors, strategic partnerships, joint ventures or capital commitments;|
|●||announcements of new services and expansions by us or our competitors;|
|●||detrimental negative publicity about us, our competitors or our industry;|
|●||changes in financial estimates by securities analysts;|
|●||additions or departures of key personnel;|
|●||release of lock-up or other transfer restrictions on our outstanding equity securities or sales of additional equity securities;|
|●||potential litigation or regulatory investigations;|
|●||substantial sales or perception of sales of our ADSs in the public market;|
|●||fluctuations in market prices for our products;|
|●||any share repurchase program;|
|●||outbreaks of health epidemics, natural disasters, and other extraordinary events; and|
|●||general economic, regulatory or political conditions in China and the U.S.|
Any of these factors may result in large and sudden changes in the volume and price at which our ADSs will trade. In addition, the stock market in general, and the market prices for companies with operations in China in particular, have experienced volatility that often has been unrelated to the operating performance of such companies. The securities of some PRC companies that have listed their securities in the United States have experienced significant volatility since their initial public offerings, including, in some cases, substantial price declines in the trading prices of their securities. The trading performances of these PRC companies’ securities after their offerings may affect the attitudes of investors toward PRC companies listed in the United States, which consequently may impact the trading performance of our ADSs, regardless of our actual operating performance. In addition, any negative news or perceptions about inadequate corporate governance practices or fraudulent accounting, corporate structure or other matters of other PRC companies may also negatively affect the attitudes of investors towards PRC-based companies in general, including us, regardless of whether we have conducted any inappropriate activities. Further, the global financial crisis and the ensuing economic recessions in many countries have contributed and may continue to contribute to extreme volatility in the global stock markets. Moreover, the stock market in general has experienced extreme price and volume fluctuations that have often been unrelated or disproportionate to the operating performance of companies like us. These broad market and industry fluctuations may adversely affect operating performance. Volatility or a lack of positive performance in our ADS price may also adversely affect our ability to retain key employees, some of whom have been granted restricted share units under our share incentive plan.
We cannot guarantee that any share repurchase program will be fully consummated or that any share repurchase program will enhance long-term shareholder value, and share repurchases could increase the volatility of the price of our ADSs and could diminish our cash reserves.
On September 9, 2019, our board of directors authorized a share repurchase program, pursuant to which we were authorized to repurchase our own Class A ordinary shares, in the form of ADSs, with an aggregate value of up to US$2.0 million during a six-month period between October 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020. On September 8, 2020, our board of directors authorized another share repurchase program, pursuant to which we were authorized to repurchase our own Class A ordinary shares, in the form of ADSs, with an aggregate value of up to US$20.0 million during a 12-month period between September 8, 2020 and September 7, 2021.
As of December 31, 2020, we had repurchased an aggregate of 260,048 ADSs for US$4.3 million on the open market under these programs, at an average price of US$16.72 per ADS. Our share repurchase programs could affect the price of our stock and increase volatility and may be suspended or terminated at any time.
If securities or industry analysts do not publish research or reports about our business, or if they adversely change their recommendations regarding our ADSs, the market price for our ADSs and trading volume could decline.
The trading market for our ADSs will be influenced by research reports and ratings that industry or securities analysts or ratings agencies publish about us, our business and the online education market in China in general. We do not have any control over these analysts or agencies. If one or more analysts or agencies who cover us downgrade our ADSs, or publish unfavorable research about us, the market price for our ADSs would likely decline. If one or more of these analysts cease to cover us or fail to regularly publish reports on us, we could lose visibility in the financial markets, which, in turn, could cause the market price or trading volume for our ADSs to decline.
Our dual class share structure with different voting rights will limit your ability to influence corporate matters and could discourage others from pursuing any change of control transactions that holders of our Class A ordinary shares and ADSs may view as beneficial.
Our ordinary shares are divided into Class A ordinary shares and Class B ordinary shares. Holders of Class A ordinary shares are entitled to one vote per share, while holders of Class B ordinary shares are entitled to ten votes per share, with Class A and Class B ordinary shares voting together as one class on all matters subject to a shareholders’ vote. As of February 28, 2021, our Class B ordinary shares represent 40.2% of our total outstanding ordinary shares on an as-converted basis and entitle their holders to 87.1% of our total voting power.
As a result of the dual class share structure and the concentration of ownership, holders of our Class B ordinary shares have substantial influence over our business, including decisions regarding mergers, consolidations and the sale of all or substantially all of our assets, election of directors and other significant corporate actions. They may take actions that are not in the best interest of us or our other shareholders. This concentration of ownership may discourage, delay or prevent a change in control of our company, which could deprive our shareholders of an opportunity to receive a premium for their shares as part of a sale of our company and may reduce the price of our ADSs. This concentrated control will limit your ability to influence corporate matters and could discourage others from pursuing any potential merger, takeover or other change of control transactions that holders of Class A ordinary shares and ADSs may view as beneficial. For more information regarding our principal shareholders and their affiliated entities, see “Item 7. Major Shareholders and Related Party Transactions.”
The sale or availability for sale of substantial amounts of our ADSs could adversely affect their market price.
Sales of substantial amounts of our ADSs in the public market, or the perception that these sales could occur, could adversely affect the market price of our ADSs and could materially impair our ability to raise capital through equity offerings in the future. We cannot predict what effect, if any, market sales of securities held by our significant shareholders or any other shareholder or the availability of these securities for future sale will have on the market price of our ADSs. In addition, certain holders of our existing shareholders are entitled to certain registration rights, including demand registration rights, piggyback registration rights, and Form F-3 or Form S-3 registration rights. Registration of these shares under the Securities Act would result in these shares becoming freely tradable without restriction under the Securities Act immediately upon the effectiveness of the registration. Sales of these registered shares in the public market, or the perception that such sales could occur, could cause the price of our ADSs to decline.
There can be no assurance that we will not be a passive foreign investment company, or PFIC, for United States federal income tax purposes for any taxable year, which could subject United States investors in our ADSs or ordinary shares to significant adverse United States income tax consequences.
A non-United States corporation, such as our company, will be classified as a “passive foreign investment company,” or PFIC, for U.S. federal income tax purposes for any taxable year, if either (i) 75% or more of its gross income for such year consists of certain types of “passive” income or (ii) 50% or more of the value of its assets (generally determined on the basis of a quarterly average) during such year is attributable to assets that produce or are held for the production of passive income (the “asset test”). Although the law in this regard is not clear, we treat our consolidated VIEs as being owned by us for U.S. federal income tax purposes because we exercise effective control over the consolidated VIEs and are entitled to substantially all of their economic benefits. As a result, we consolidate their results of operations in our consolidated U.S. GAAP financial statements. Assuming that we are the owner of our consolidated VIEs for U.S. federal income tax purposes, and based upon our income and assets (taking into account goodwill and other unbooked intangibles) and the market price of our ADSs, we do not believe that we were a PFIC for the taxable year ended December 31, 2020 and do not anticipate becoming a PFIC in the foreseeable future.
While we do not expect to be or become a PFIC in the current or foreseeable taxable years, the determination of whether we will be or become a PFIC will depend, in part, upon the value of our goodwill and other unbooked intangibles (which will depend upon the market value of our ADSs from time to time, which may be volatile). Furthermore, the determination of whether we will be or become a PFIC will depend, in part, on the composition of our income and assets. Fluctuations in the market price of our ADSs or ordinary shares may cause us to become a PFIC for the current or subsequent taxable years. The composition of our income and assets may also be affected by how, and how quickly, we use our liquid assets.
Because determination of PFIC status is a fact-intensive inquiry made on an annual basis that depends upon the composition of our assets and income, no assurance can be given that we are not or will not become classified as a PFIC. If we were to be or become classified as a PFIC in any taxable year, a U.S. Holder (as defined in “Taxation—United States Federal Income Taxation”) may incur significantly increased U.S. federal income tax on gain recognized on the sale or other disposition of our ADSs or ordinary shares and on the receipt of distributions on the ADSs or ordinary shares to the extent such gain or distributions is treated as an “excess distribution” under the U.S. federal income tax rules. Further, if we are classified as a PFIC for any year during which a U.S. Holder holds our ADSs or ordinary shares, we generally will continue to be treated as a PFIC for all succeeding years during which such U.S. Holder holds our ADSs or ordinary shares. You are urged to consult your tax advisor concerning the United States federal income tax consequences of acquiring, holding, and disposing of ADSs if we are or become classified as a PFIC. For more information, see “Item 10. Additional Information—E. Taxation—United States Federal Income Tax Considerations—Passive Foreign Investment Company Considerations.”
You may face difficulties in protecting your interests, and your ability to protect your rights through U.S. courts may be limited, because we are incorporated under Cayman Islands law.
We are an exempted company incorporated under the laws of the Cayman Islands. Our corporate affairs are governed by our memorandum and articles of association, the Companies Act of the Cayman Islands (2021 Revision) and the common law of the Cayman Islands. The rights of shareholders to take action against the directors, actions by minority shareholders and the fiduciary responsibilities of our directors to us under Cayman Islands law are to a large extent governed by the common law of the Cayman Islands. The common law of the Cayman Islands is derived in part from comparatively limited judicial precedent in the Cayman Islands as well as from the common law of England, the decisions of whose courts are of persuasive authority, but are not binding, on a court in the Cayman Islands. The rights of our shareholders and the fiduciary responsibilities of our directors under Cayman Islands law are not as clearly established as they would be under statutes or judicial precedent in some jurisdictions in the United States. In particular, the Cayman Islands has a less developed body of securities laws than the United States. Some U.S. states, such as Delaware, have more fully developed and judicially interpreted bodies of corporate law than the Cayman Islands. In addition, Cayman Islands companies may not have standing to initiate a shareholder derivative action in a federal court of the United States.
The Cayman Islands courts are also unlikely:
|●||to recognize or enforce against us judgments of courts of the United States based on certain civil liability provisions of U.S. securities laws; and|
|●||to impose liabilities against us, in original actions brought in the Cayman Islands, based on certain civil liability provisions of U.S. securities laws that are penal in nature.|
There is no statutory recognition in the Cayman Islands of judgments obtained in the United States, although the courts of the Cayman Islands will in certain circumstances recognize and enforce a non-penal judgment of a foreign court of competent jurisdiction without retrial on the merits.
As a result of all of the above, public shareholders may have more difficulty in protecting their interests in the face of actions taken by management, members of the board of directors or controlling shareholders than they would as public shareholders of a company incorporated in the United States.
Judgments obtained against us by our shareholders may not be enforceable.
We are a Cayman Islands company and all of our assets are located outside of the United States. The majority of our current operations are conducted in the China. In addition, a majority of our current directors and officers are nationals and residents of countries other than the United States. Substantially all of the assets of these persons are located outside the United States. As a result, it may be difficult or impossible for you to bring an action against us or against these individuals in the United States in the event that you believe that your rights have been infringed under the United States federal securities laws or otherwise. Even if you are successful in bringing an action of this kind, the laws of the Cayman Islands and of China may render you unable to enforce a judgment against our assets or the assets of our directors and officers.
The voting rights of holders of ADSs are limited by the terms of the deposit agreement, and you may not be able to exercise your right to vote your Class A ordinary shares.
As a holder of our ADSs, you will only be able to exercise the voting rights with respect to the underlying Class A ordinary shares in accordance with the provisions of the deposit agreement. Under the deposit agreement, you must vote by giving voting instructions to the depositary. Upon receipt of your voting instructions, the depositary will vote the underlying Class A ordinary shares in accordance with these instructions. You will not be able to directly exercise your right to vote with respect to the underlying shares unless you withdraw the shares. Under our amended and restated memorandum and articles of association, the minimum notice period required for convening a general meeting is ten clear days. When a general meeting is convened, you may not receive sufficient advance notice to withdraw the shares underlying your ADSs to allow you to vote with respect to any specific matter. If we ask for your instructions, the depositary will notify you of the upcoming vote and will arrange to deliver our voting materials to you. We cannot assure you that you will receive the voting materials in time to ensure that you can instruct the depositary to vote your shares. In addition, the depositary and its agents are not responsible for failing to carry out voting instructions or for their manner of carrying out your voting instructions. This means that you may not be able to exercise your right to vote and you may have no legal remedy if the shares underlying your ADSs are not voted as you requested.
We are an emerging growth company within the meaning of the Securities Act and may take advantage of certain reduced reporting requirements.
We are an “emerging growth company,” as defined in the JOBS Act, and we may take advantage of certain exemptions from various requirements applicable to other public companies that are not emerging growth companies including, most significantly, not being required to comply with the auditor attestation requirements of Section 404 for so long as we are an emerging growth company. As a result, if we elect not to comply with such auditor attestation requirements, our investors may not have access to certain information they may deem important.
We are a foreign private issuer within the meaning of the rules under the Exchange Act, and as such we are exempt from certain provisions applicable to United States domestic public companies.
Because we qualify as a foreign private issuer under the Exchange Act, we are exempt from certain provisions of the securities rules and regulations in the United States that are applicable to U.S. domestic issuers, including:
|●||the rules under the Exchange Act requiring the filing with the SEC of quarterly reports on Form 10-Q or current reports on Form 8-K;|
|●||the sections of the Exchange Act regulating the solicitation of proxies, consents, or authorizations in respect of a security registered under the Exchange Act;|
|●||the sections of the Exchange Act requiring insiders to file public reports of their share ownership and trading activities and liability for insiders who profit from trades made in a short period of time; and|
|●||the selective disclosure rules by issuers of material nonpublic information under Regulation FD.|
We are required to file an annual report on Form 20-F within four months of the end of each fiscal year. In addition, we publish our results on a quarterly basis as press releases, distributed pursuant to the rules and regulations of the NYSE. Press releases relating to financial results and material events are also be furnished to the SEC on Form 6-K. However, the information we are required to file with or furnish to the SEC are less extensive and less timely as compared to that required to be filed with the SEC by United States domestic issuers.
Furthermore, as a Cayman Islands company listed on the NYSE, we are permitted to elect to rely, and have relied, on the home country exemptions afforded to foreign private issuers under NYSE corporate governance rules, including:
|●||an exemption from having a board of directors that is composed of a majority of independent directors;|
|●||an exemption from having an audit committee comprised of at least three members;|
|●||an exemption from having a compensation committee that is composed entirely of independent directors; and|
|●||an exemption from having a nominating and governance committee that is composed entirely of independent directors.|
As a result, you may not be afforded the same protections or information, which would be made available to you, were you investing in a United States domestic issuer.
You may not receive dividends or other distributions on our Class A ordinary shares and you may not receive any value for them, if it is illegal or impractical to make them available to you.
The depositary of our ADSs has agreed to pay to you the cash dividends or other distributions it or the custodian receives on Class A ordinary shares or other deposited securities underlying our ADSs, after deducting its fees and expenses. You will receive these distributions in proportion to the number of Class A ordinary shares your ADSs represent. However, the depositary is not responsible if it decides that it is unlawful or impractical to make a distribution available to any holders of ADSs. For example, it would be unlawful to make a distribution to a holder of ADSs if it consists of securities that require registration under the Securities Act but that are not properly registered or distributed under an applicable exemption from registration. The depositary may also determine that it is not feasible to distribute certain property through the mail. Additionally, the value of certain distributions may be less than the cost of mailing them. In these cases, the depositary may determine not to distribute such property. We have no obligation to register under U.S. securities laws any ADSs, ordinary shares, rights or other securities received through such distributions. We also have no obligation to take any other action to permit the distribution of ADSs, ordinary shares, rights or anything else to holders of ADSs. This means that you may not receive distributions we make on our ordinary shares or any value for them if it is illegal or impractical for us to make them available to you. These restrictions may cause a material decline in the value of our ADSs.
You may not be able to participate in rights offerings and may experience dilution of your holdings.
We may, from time to time, distribute rights to our shareholders, including rights to acquire securities. Under the deposit agreement, the depositary will not distribute rights to holders of ADSs unless the distribution and sale of rights and the securities to which these rights relate are either exempt from registration under the Securities Act with respect to all holders of ADSs, or are registered under the provisions of the Securities Act. The depositary may, but is not required to, attempt to sell these undistributed rights to third parties, and may allow the rights to lapse. We may be unable to establish an exemption from registration under the Securities Act, and we are under no obligation to file a registration statement with respect to these rights or underlying securities or to endeavor to have a registration statement declared effective. Accordingly, holders of ADSs may be unable to participate in our rights offerings and may experience dilution of their holdings as a result.
You may be subject to limitations on transfer of your ADSs.
Your ADSs are transferable on the books of the depositary. However, the depositary may close its books at any time or from time to time when it deems expedient in connection with the performance of its duties. The depositary may close its books from time to time for a number of reasons, including in connection with corporate events such as a rights offering, during which time the depositary needs to maintain an exact number of ADS holders on its books for a specified period. The depositary may also close its books in emergencies, and on weekends and public holidays. The depositary may refuse to deliver, transfer or register transfers of our ADSs generally when our share register or the books of the depositary are closed, or at any time if we or the depositary thinks it is advisable to do so because of any requirement of law or of any government or governmental body, or under any provision of the deposit agreement, or for any other reason.
We incur increased costs as a result of being a public company, and we cannot predict or estimate the amount of additional future costs we may incur or the timing of such costs.
As a public company, we incur significant legal, accounting and other expenses that we did not incur as a private company, including additional costs associated with our public company reporting obligations. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, as well as rules subsequently implemented by the SEC and the NYSE, impose various requirements on the corporate governance practices of public companies. As a company with less than US$1.07 billion in revenues for our last fiscal year, we qualify as an “emerging growth company” pursuant to the JOBS Act. An emerging growth company may take advantage of specified reduced reporting and other requirements that are otherwise applicable generally to public companies. These provisions include exemption from the auditor attestation requirement under Section 404 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 in the assessment of the emerging growth company’s internal control over financial reporting.
We expect these rules and regulations to increase our legal and financial compliance costs and to make some corporate activities more time-consuming and costly. After we are no longer an “emerging growth company”, we expect to incur significant expenses and devote substantial management effort toward ensuring compliance with the requirements of Section 404 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 and the other rules and regulations of the SEC. We are currently evaluating and monitoring developments with respect to these rules and regulations, and we cannot predict or estimate with reasonable certainty the amount of additional costs we may incur or the timing of such costs.
In the past, shareholders of a public company often brought securities class action suits against the company following periods of instability in the market price of that company’s securities. If we were involved in a class action suit, it could divert a significant amount of our management’s attention and other resources from our business and operations, which could harm our results of operations and require us to incur significant expenses to defend the suit. Any such class action suit, whether or not successful, could harm our reputation and restrict our ability to raise capital in the future. In addition, if a claim is successfully made against us, we may be required to pay significant damages, which could have a material adverse effect on our financial condition and results of operations.
ITEM 4. INFORMATION ON THE COMPANY
A. History and Development of the Company
We began our operations in July 2011 through Beijing Dasheng Zhixing Technology Co., Ltd., or Dasheng Zhixing, a PRC domestic company, which has become our consolidated VIE through a series of contractual arrangements. 51Talk English Philippines Corporation, or Philippines Co I, was incorporated in August 2012 to conduct our business operations in the Philippines, including teacher sourcing, teacher engagement, teacher training, teacher quality control, course content development and free trial lessons.
In order to facilitate international capital raising of our company, we incorporated China Online Education Group, or COE, to become our offshore holding company under the laws of the Cayman Islands in November 2012. In January 2013, China Online Education (HK) Limited, or COE HK Co I, was incorporated in Hong Kong as a wholly owned subsidiary of COE. Beijing Dasheng Online Technology Co., Ltd., or Dasheng Online, was set up in June 2013 as a wholly owned subsidiary of COE HK Co I in the PRC.
In October 2014, we undertook an internal reorganization, pursuant to which we established two new subsidiaries, namely 51Talk English International Limited, or COE HK Co II, in Hong Kong and China Online Innovations Inc., or Philippines Co II, in the Philippines. Since the reorganization, foreign teachers delivering paid lessons on our platform no longer entered into service agreements with Philippines Co I, but rather entered into service agreements with COE HK Co II. Furthermore, we transferred the bulk of our Philippine business operations from Philippines Co I to Philippines Co II, and we began to enter into employment agreements with new full-time employees in the Philippines via Philippines Co II. In January 2016, we established a new subsidiary in the Philippines, On Demand English Innovations Inc., or Philippines Co III. In April 2016, we transferred all business operations and most of the assets of Philippines Co I to Philippines Co III. After these internal reorganizations, Philippines Co III conducts our business operations relating to the free trial lessons delivered by our free trial teachers, Philippines and Philippines Co II conducts the remainder of our business operations in the Philippines, including teacher sourcing, teacher recommendation, teacher training, teacher quality control, course content development and free trial lessons offered by our free trial teachers.
Philippines Co I currently does not have any material business operation, and we intend to gradually liquidate Philippines Co I.
Under the Philippine Corporation Code, the business, assets and affairs of a corporation are handled and managed by a board of directors, which is composed of the number of individuals mandated under the corporation’s articles of incorporation. Philippine law further requires that each director own at least one share of stock in his or her name in the books of the corporation. In order to comply with the foregoing, there are seven individual shareholders of Philippines Co II and five individual shareholders of Philippines Co III, holding an aggregate of 0.000007% and 0.001% of the equity interest of Philippines Co II and Philippines Co III, respectively. COE entered into contractual arrangements with each of (i) Philippines Co II and its seven individual shareholders and (ii) Philippines Co III and its five individual shareholders. These contractual arrangements provide us with an exclusive option to purchase all of the equity interests in Philippines Co II and Philippines Co III held by individual shareholders and the power to exercise their respective shareholder rights.
In January 2015, we acquired and consolidated the business operations and assets of 91 Waijiao, a provider of English education programs in China that focused on offering live lessons by foreign teachers online. The following operating metrics of our company exclude the corresponding data of 91 Waijiao for all periods presented in this annual report, all of which have been immaterial to our overall business operation since our acquisition of the business operations and assets of 91 Waijiao: (i) the number of paid lessons booked, (ii) the number of active students, (iii) the number of paying students and (iv) the number of teachers available.
On June 10, 2016, our ADSs began trading on the NYSE under the ticker symbol “COE.” We sold a total of 2,760,000 ADSs (reflecting the full exercise of the over-allotment option by the underwriters to purchase an additional 360,000 ADSs), representing 41,400,000 Class A ordinary shares, at an initial offering price of US$19.00 per ADS. Concurrently with our initial public offering, we also issued 11,842,105 and 3,947,368 Class A ordinary shares at a price of US$19.00 per share to DCM (through two affiliated entities) and Sequoia (through SCC Growth I Holdco A, Ltd.), respectively, through private placements.
In December 2016, we incorporated Shanghai Zhishi Education Training Co., Ltd., or Zhishi Training, as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dasheng Zhixing to conduct our business operations in Shanghai. In January 2017, Wuhan Houdezaiwu Online Technology Co., Ltd., or Houdezaiwu Online, was incorporated as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dasheng Zhixing to conduct our business operations in Wuhan. In October 2017, Tianjin Dasheng Zhixing Technology Co., Ltd., was incorporated as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dasheng Zhixing to conduct our business operations in Tianjin, which was subsequently dissolved in October 2019.
In July 2018, we incorporated Helloworld Online Education Group, or Helloworld Online Cayman, under the laws of the Cayman Islands as a wholly owned subsidiary of COE. In August 2018, Helloworld Online Education Group (HK) Limited, was incorporated in Hong Kong as a wholly owned subsidiary of Helloworld Online Cayman. Beijing Helloworld Online Technology Co., Ltd., was set up in September 2018 as a wholly owned subsidiary of Helloworld Online Education Group (HK) Limited in the PRC. Beijing Dasheng Helloworld Technology Co., Ltd. was set up in July 2018 as an operating entity of the business of small class lessons. Through a series of contractual arrangements, we obtained control over Beijing Dasheng Helloworld Technology Co., Ltd., and treat it as a consolidated VIE.
In July 2019, we incorporated Shenzhen Dasheng Zhiyun Technology Co., Ltd., a PRC domestic company, to conduct our business operations in Shenzhen, which has become our consolidated VIE through a series of contractual arrangements.
In September 2019, we announced a US$2.0 million share repurchase program and repurchased an aggregate of 120,448 ADSs at an average purchase price of US$ 7. 09 in per ADS 2019 and 100 ADSs at the price of US$9.51 per ADS in 2020, including repurchase commissions, under this program.
In 2020, we established five branch offices of Beijing Dasheng Zhixing Technology Co., Ltd. , which were respectively located in Ningbo city of Zhejiang province, Jinan city of Shandong province, Hefei city of Anhui province, Changping district of Beijing city and Shijiazhuang city of Hebei province, and one branch office of Wuhan Houdezaiwu Online Technology Co., Ltd. located in Qiaokou district of Wuhan.
On June 17, 2020, we completed a registered follow-on public offering, where we issued and sold 327,140 ADSs (including 27,140 ADSs sold from the exercise of over-allotment option) and certain selling shareholders sold 795,542 ADSs (including 95,542 ADSs sold from the exercise of over-allotment option), at a public offering price of US$19.00 per ADS. We received aggregate gross proceeds from the follow-on public offering of approximately US$6.2 million.
In September 2020, we announced a US$20.0 million share repurchase program and repurchased an aggregate of 139,500 ADSs at an average purchase price of US$25.07, including repurchase commissions, under this program during the second half of 2020.
In December 2020, we completed the acquisition of GKid, a provider of innovative AI-driven online English courses through highly interactive animation and picture books for children, and obtain GKid's product portfolio and industry-leading AI technologies. We believe that with product offerings intended for those between the ages of three and eight, this acquisition both extends our addressable market and broadens our product and curriculum portfolio, leading to product improvement and innovation which will better serve our students.
Our principal executive offices are located at 6th Floor, Deshi Building North, Shangdi Street, Haidian District, Beijing 100085, PRC. Our telephone number at this address is +86-10-5692-8909. Our registered office in the Cayman Islands is located at the offices of International Corporation Services Ltd., Harbour Place 2nd Floor, 103 South Church Street, P.O. Box 472, George Town, Grand Cayman KY1-1106, Cayman Islands. Our agent for service of process in the United States is Law Debenture Corporate Services Inc., located at 400 Madison Avenue 4th Floor, New York, New York 10017.
SEC maintains an internet site that contains reports, proxy and information statements, and other information regarding issuers that file electronically with the SEC on www.sec.gov. You can also find information on our website https://51talk.investorroom.com. The information contained on our website is not a part of this annual report.
B. Business Overview
We are a leading online education platform in China, with core expertise in English education. Our mission is to make quality education accessible and affordable. Recognizing the strong demand for improving English proficiency and the lack of effective and affordable solutions in China, our founders started with English education as the first step of our journey.
English education in China traditionally focuses on test preparation instead of improving English proficiency, especially improving English communication skills. To address this unmet need, we have developed proprietary online and mobile education platforms that enable students across China to take live interactive English lessons with overseas foreign teachers, on demand, fostering the development of all aspects of English proficiency.
We connect our students with a large pool of highly qualified foreign teachers that we have assembled using a shared economy approach. Once our teachers have gone through our rigorous selection and training process, we give them the flexibility to deliver lessons based on their own scheduling availability, at appropriate locations of their choice, and get paid based on the number of lessons taught. This shared economy approach has allowed us to quickly build a large pool of teachers in a cost-effective manner. We employ student and teacher feedback and data analytics to deliver a personalized learning experience. Our platform analyzes teachers’ teaching aptitudes, feedback and rating from students as well as background, and recommends suitable teachers to students according to their respective characteristics and learning objectives. The large pool of teachers not only allows us to provide live lessons to students on demand by giving them scheduling flexibility, but also ensures that we are able to accommodate and address students’ individual learning behaviors and needs.
We develop and tailor our proprietary curriculum specifically to our interactive lesson format and our goal of building an interactive and immersive English learning environment. Our flagship courses, Classic English Junior and Classic English, place specific emphasis on the development of English communication skills. We complement our flagship offerings with American Academy and Small Class courses, as well as a number of specialty courses aimed at situation-based English education needs, such as our 51 Talk New Concept English course, as well as Business English and IELTS Speaking.
We have designed a holistic learning solution that enhances effective learning through the integration of live lessons, practice, assessment and mentoring. Our live lessons allow for frequent interactions between students and teachers, which is a key factor in improving English communication skills. Prior to taking lessons, students preview course materials using exercises and illustrations, supported by a pronunciation recognition and rating system. Assessment includes post-lesson quizzes and level advancement exams, both of which help students better assess their learning outcome and identify areas for improvement.
Our proprietary online and mobile education platforms, particularly our Air Class platform, are critical to students’ learning experience. The Air Class platform integrates a number of features that allows us to closely simulate, and in some ways surpass, a traditional classroom experience. Our 51Talk mobile app, which serves as an integral part of our students’ overall learning experience, allows students to book and manage lessons, access pre-lesson preparation and review materials, and take lessons at locations of their choice. Approximately 90.9% of our active students utilized our mobile app in the three months ended December 31, 2020.
Our gross billings increased from RMB1,703.0 million in 2018 to RMB2,080.6 million in 2019, and further to RMB2,722.6 million (US$417.3 million) in 2020. We define gross billings for a specific period as the total amount of cash received for the sale of course packages and services in such period, net of the total amount of refunds in such period. We have experienced significant growth in net revenues, which increased from RMB1,145.5 million in 2018 to RMB1,478.5 million in 2019, and to RMB2,054.1 million (US$314.8 million) in 2020. Our net loss decreased from RMB416.7 million in 2018 to RMB104.4 million in 2019, and we generated net income of RMB147.0 million (US$22.5 million) in 2020.
In particular, we have experienced significant growth in the K-12 online English education market, which has since become our main focus. We have implemented a series of targeted initiatives to better engage K-12 students and their parents. In 2015, we released our Classic English Junior course which is customized to the learning objectives and patterns of K-12 students. In March 2016, we launched our 51Talk New Concept English course, which is a test preparation course tailored for K-12 students, and in May 2016, we introduced American Academy course package with teachers from North America mainly catering to children five to twelve years old. In June 2017, we launched our small class program for K-12 students, which offers students a motivating learning environment with fixed classmates and fixed teachers. As a result our initiatives and efforts, K-12 students’ contribution to our overall gross billings reached 96.4% in the last quarter of 2020, compared to 94.1% in the last quarter of 2019.
The following table sets forth our key operating data for the periods indicated:
For the Year Ended December 31,
Summary of Operating Data
Gross billings (1) (in RMB millions)
Gross billings contributed by K-12 students (in RMB millions)
Active students (2) (in thousands)
Paying students (3) (in thousands)
Average spending per paying student (in RMB thousands)
|(1)||“Gross billings” for a specific period refer to the total amount of cash received for the sale of course packages and services in such period, net of the total amount of refunds in such period.|
|(2)||An “active student” for a specified period refers to a student who booked at least one paid lesson, excluding those students who only attended paid live broadcasting lessons or trial lessons. A lesson is considered “booked” when it is taken or when the student to such lesson is confirmed absent.|
|(3)||A “paying student” for a specified period refers to a student that purchased a course package during the period, excluding those students who only paid for live broadcasting lessons or trial lessons, and the total number of “paying students” for a specified period refers to the total number of paying students for such period minus the total number of students that obtained refunds during such period.|
Our holistic learning process consists of four aspects: live lessons, effective practice, assessment and mentoring.
In order to recommend the proper course level that a new student should take, we first assess the student’s English proficiency, using a 11-level scale for K-12 students and a 16-level scale for adult students. New students of one-on-one class will undergo an assessment typically carried out by our foreign teachers in one-on-one settings. New students who plan to take a small class can answer a few questions online to assess their levels of proficiency in English.
Once a student is enrolled, he or she first picks the courses based on our recommendation. For one-on-one class, each student can select the timing for each lesson according to his or her individual preferences and scheduling needs. For our small class program, at the time of enrollment, students will select a class with a fixed weekly schedule consisting of two foreign-teacher lessons and one Chinese-teacher lesson. Once a lesson is scheduled, the student has access to pre-lesson study materials. After each lesson, the student is encouraged to assess their learning outcome by taking the post-lesson quizzes.
One-on-one lessons with foreign teachers
A substantial majority of our students take live one-on-one lessons with our Filipino teachers. We believe lessons that enable interaction between the student and the teacher as well as individual attention to the students are key to an effective English learning experience. Each student has access to a large pool of qualified teachers. Students have the flexibility to select teachers based on a wide range of attributes, including their rating and feedback from other students, as well as t